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Johan De Silva

Published January 20th, 2006 | by Johan De Silva

A Cock And Bull Story Review

Classification: 15 Director: Michael Winterbottom Rating: 4/5

How do I love thee, Michael Winterbottom? Let me count the ways… The word genius is massively overused these days but of all the directors currently working I would say Winterbottom comes close. Freewheeling, genre-busting, improvisational – Winterbottom takes all the rules (three act structure, story arc) and bins them. His films aren’t always successful – I cordially disliked 9 Songs, was left cold by The Claim, adore Wonderland – but they are always, always interesting, and if there’s anyone who can make a successful film of Sterne’s unfilmable, unreadable novel, it’s Winterbottom.

Tristram Shandy (Coogan) is showing us around his home, Shandy Hall, and introducing us to his father (Coogan), Uncle Amos (Brydon) and his pregnant mother Elizabeth (Hawes), who is about to go into labour. The Shandy family are a fairly typical bunch of English eccentrics and Tristram is constantly interrupting his own narrative flow as he realises that he’s getting ahead of himself. Just as little Tristram, nose broken by the maladroit use of forceps by Dr Slop (Moran), is dragged into the world, the director Mark (Northam) calls cut and suddenly we’re on a busy film set.

This approach to a long, complicated, almost plotless novel – ‘a post-modern classic written way before there was any modernism to be post about’ as Steve Coogan says in the film – is similar to that taken by Charlie Kaufman in ‘Adaptation’. We see the process of the film being made – directorial decisions, based on that day’s rushes; arguments with financiers; script meetings; press visits. The heart of the film is Steve Coogan, playing himself in a generously unflattering portrait, all vanity and insecurity. His wife (McDonald) and son have come down for a quick visit, but he is torn between spending time with them and flirting with the pretty runner (Harris) who has caught his eye. Rob Brydon, also playing himself, is hilarious as Coogan’s rival. The two comics are old friends and their endless sparring is hilarious, as when they bicker about the relative heights of their heels or who does the better impression of Al Pacino.

Winterbottom has surrounded his leads with an appealing and talented supporting cast; half the comedians in Britain (David Walliams, Ronni Ancona, Stephen Fry) pop up in cameo roles, and everyone seems to be having a ball. Nice to see Keeley Hawes playing sexy and funny; Shirley Henderson is brilliant as always. The film cleverly reveals a lot of actors’ vulnerabilities – Coogan in particular is seen trying to distance himself from the character that made him famous, Alan Partridge, and there are references to his recent real-life tabloid exploits. There are also references to the troubles that beset low-budget films, with life and art colliding again – A Cock And Bull Story was almost shut down when financiers pulled out.

Winterbottom manages to be surprisingly inventive on a shoestring – there are some lovely effects with an animated map – and a very funny scene with Coogan being lowered, upside down, into a model of a womb for the birth scene. Films about filmmaking always run the risk of seeming a bit clever clever and injokey, but Winterbottom succeeds in keeping it light and entertaining and smart. A Cock And Bull Story isn’t perfect, but it’s a very enjoyable and rambunctious treat that, by taking an irreverent approach to adapting a novel, captures the spirit of Tristram Shandy better than any straight adaptation could.


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