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Posts Tagged ‘A Cock And Bull Story’

There’s having a bit of a range, then there’s being impressively versatile, then there’s having a CV which is all over the place, and then there’s being Michael Winterbottom. Thomas Hardy adaptations, gruelling real-world reportage, respectable hard-core, lesbian serial killers: this man has done the lot. His work is impossible to categorise, for all that he is one of those directors who makes frequent use of the same collaborators. One of the higher-profile of these is Steve Coogan, who worked with him on 24 Hour Party People, The Look of Love, The Trip (a TV show in the UK but a movie elsewhere), and 2005’s A Cock And Bull Story.

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For a man of Winterbottom’s restless ambition you can see the attraction of having a go at Laurence Sterne’s almost-definitively unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy, for that is what this is almost-always described as. The book itself has been been on my to-read list for many years , and I am usually wary of watching film versions of books I’m planning to read. A Cock And Bull Story is probably not likely to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the source material, though.

Coogan plays Tristram Shandy, an eighteenth-century gentleman in the process of telling his life story. Coogan also plays Shandy’s father Walter, who to be honest has a slightly larger role in the film as Tristam himself is not actually born in the course of the book. This, if you will, the central gag of the book – Tristram gets so easily distracted with peripheral stories about the circumstances of his conception and the lives of various relatives that he never quite gets round to his own birth.

So this is not a conventional life story, and the film initially looks like it’s going to be a little off the wall, too: there’s a scene in which a youthful Tristram gets his member trapped in a sash window, which is not the stuff of your traditional costume drama, and then a sequence in which Coogan/Shandy apologises for the poor quality of the various child actors employed to portray him.

However, the movie is just getting started, and this is why I feel describing A Cock And Bull Story as an actual adaptation of Tristram Shandy is rather misleading. There is, all right, a longish section near the start of the film portraying the confinement of Tristram’s mother (Keeley Hawes), the arrival of a doctor who doesn’t exactly inspire trust (Dylan Moran), and so on. But then the narrative suddenly takes a step back, and rather than being about the story of the book, the film is about an attempt to make a low-budget adaptation of Tristram Shandy starring an actor named Steve Coogan.

The part of Steve Coogan is played, not entirely surprisingly, by Steve Coogan, and also appearing as fictionalised versions of themselves are Hawes, Moran, Gillian Anderson and  – most prominently – Rob Brydon. Coogan is depicted as a deeply insecure individual, permanently concerned with maintaining his status as the star of the production, and very threatened by any increase in Brydon’s prominence in the film.

Anyone whose seen The Trip will probably be quite familiar with the relationship between Coogan and Brydon’s fictional alter-egos and the sniping and backbiting that goes on between them. The clever thing about this idea is that both characters are just close enough to the public perception of who these actors really are for it to be hard to tell them apart – Coogan in particular plays up to his tabloid image as a slightly dodgy character with a chaotic personal life. On the other hand, any film in which famous people play themselves is always going to be open to charges that it’s just being self-regarding and clever-clever.

As a side issue, the film also features quite a few well-known faces – Kelly Macdonald, a pre-Moneypenny Naomie Harris, a pre-Graviton Ian Hart, and others – and it can be unclear who’s supposed to be playing themself and who isn’t. It does draw attention to the artificial divisions in the narrative.

Then again, perhaps that’s the point of it all. There are some jokes which are perhaps a little too self-reflexive: the fictional Gillian Anderson, upon seeing the finished adaptation, expresses her surprise at how little she’s actually in it – Anderson herself is in the movie for probably less than ten minutes. But most of the time, the film succeeds when it tries to be funny – although this is never what you’d call broad or even mainstream humour. There’s an air of ostentatious cleverness running through this film which may not be to everyone’s taste.

And, as usual, it’s very difficult to combine this kind of conceit with genuine drama and emotion – a parallel is established between Walter Shandy’s concerns for his son, and fictional-Coogan’s relationship with his own new baby, and the emotion never quite connects, simply because one has already been made aware that these are not real people.

That said, I enjoy clever films, and the stuff with Coogan and Brydon is droll enough to be a lot of fun. It’s not the biggest or most memorable of films, and almost certainly not one of Winterbottom’s best, but it’s certainly different. And while it may not actually be a straight adaptation of Tristram Shandy, I suspect it does a better job of capturing the style and essence of the source material than many straight adaptations manage. It’s not really Tristram Shandy, but it’s a lot like it.

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