TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY
STARRING Steve Coogan
DIRECTED BY Michael Winterbottom
Opens Friday, May 19
It would be a great miscalculation to attempt a faithful retelling of a novel that is itself not much interested in telling a story and was made famous for its formal distractions black pages, nonsensical lists, squiggly lines, a blank chapter where you, reader, are invited to include your thoughts on a particular character.
Director Michael Winterbottom is as little interested in beginning-middle-end as was Laurence Sterne when he wrote Tristram Shandy, a faux memoir that is endlessly deferred by the fact that its hero-narrator cannot quite get around to telling us about his own birth.
And so, just as the novel refuses to bring us the life of its hero, so does the film refuse to bring us the novel. Instead, after about 15 minutes, which seems to be faithful to the action and narration of the book, the behind-the-scenes production starts to take over, as the concerns and obsessive egos of actors, girlfriends of actors, writers, director, producers and journalists begin to undo the story proper. Everyone has his or her own agenda and private fantasies that parallel those of the novel and hinder the progression and cohesion of the film.
Everything threatens to come to a halt when the character named Steve Coogan (played by the actor Steve Coogan), who is playing both Tristram and his father, Walter, insists that his shoes be altered so that he is taller than his opposite, Rob (played by Rob Brydon), who is playing Toby Shandy, even though this will break with the continuity of the first half of the film. This hilarious rivalry (the competition for the role of leading man) between Steve and Rob mirrors the central one of their characters in the novel Walter Shandy and his brother Toby are forever at odds because they dont understand each others obsessions.
The film is threatened again when the producers insist on a great battle scene. Meanwhile the writers, in a last-ditch effort to save the production, decide to bring in the love interest and call in star Gillian Anderson to play the Widow Wadman, something Steve, who has already had to endure being upside-down and naked inside a replica of a womb, definitely does not want she is the love interest of, and so will add screen time to, his rival character/co-actor, Rob.
Despite everyone's individual demands for what scenes from the book should or shouldn't be included, no one on set seems to have even bothered to read the novel except the frustrated and idealizing production assistant, Jennie (Naomie Harris), whose love of art house cinema and seduction of the lead actor is reminiscent of a more traditional system of filmmaking.
These digressions and the breakdown in the collaborative process manage to poke fun at today's cult of the popular actor and perceived glamour of filmmaking, while also getting to a major theme of the novel that the individual nature of anyone's train of thought ensures that one is essentially isolated. However, what distinguishes this film from the many other current offerings that are meditations on the production of art and isolation of the individual (Adaptation is, obviously, the first that comes to mind), is that Winterbottom captures the joy of experimentation and the optimistic laughter at human shortcomings from a novel that preceded the gloom of the modern existential crisis we see evident in most contemporary works.
This anti-adaptation may foster the inevitable gap in bringing a book to screen, but nevertheless, and most importantly, it preserves the novel's spirit in goodwill and humour.