Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 20 October 2005
Source Picturehouse Entertainment 35mm print
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
As he demonstrated in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, Steve Coogan is never better than while playing Steve Coogan. Then again, anyone who has seen him play hapless talk-show host Alan Partridge in the long-running BBC comedy series may have difficulty discerning where the actor ends and the character begins; after all, his incarnation of Manchester TV presenter Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People seemed to channel Partridge at times. To complicate matters further, the real Tony Wilson makes a cameo appearance as himself in Coogan’s latest film, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. In the film, Wilson makes reference to Partridge while preparing to interview Coogan, who appears in the triple role of Steve Coogan, Tristram Shandy, and Tristram’s father Walter.
If all of this sounds rather confused and jumbled, well, that’s the point. In his adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, director Michael Winterbottom has embraced the chaos of this famously digressive text, fashioning a movie about making a movie of a novel about writing a novel. Appropriately, snippets from the score for Fellini’s 8 ½ can be heard throughout, though the film’s warm, playful tone gives it more in common with Truffaut’s Day for Night.
The film begins in the make-up trailer, with Coogan alternately fussing about the size of his prosthetic nose and trading jibes with his co-star Rob Brydon. The rivalry between the two men becomes a running theme and provides the movie with most of its comic highlights (many of them improvised). Directly addressing the audience (just as he did in 24 Hour Party People, which was also directed by Winterbottom), Coogan gives an irreverent overview of the film and its source material.
The action shifts back and forth between the filming of the novel and life on the set. It is the latter portion where the lines between fiction and reality become especially confused. Coogan gamely allows tabloid headlines and details from his own life to filter into the movie, but the rest of the cast featured in these scenes is divided between those playing (presumably) exaggerated versions of themselves and those playing fictional characters.
This may sound chaotic, but Winterbottom juggles the film’s multiple layers with grace and assuredness. Although he is quick to poke fun at the clashing egos involved in the making of a movie, he does so affectionately. While Coogan and Brydon’s sparring matches are undoubtedly the highlight of the film, they are given ample support by a talented cast that includes Dylan Moran, Kelly Macdonald, Shirley Henderson, Stephen Fry, and Gillian Anderson. But the real star of the film is the versatile Winterbottom, who again establishes himself as one of the most original voices to emerge from Britain in recent years.