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Friday
Jun242011

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

  “Very British, wasn’t it?” I overheard a bloke comment on the way out of a theatre showing this latest from director Michael Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (the duo responsible for gems such as “24 Hour Party People” and “Butterfly Kiss”).   The extent to which you’ll enjoy this comedy is in direct proportion to the extent to which you consider my fellow cineaste’s observation to be high praise.  

“Tristram” employs mockumentary and breaking-the-third-wall approaches to tell the story of a flummoxed film crew working, lounging, and moving through the rooms of a grand old country manor as they strive to breathe life into Laurence Sterne’s essentially unfilmmable, playfully experimental Enlightenment-era novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” (published in nine volumes from 1759-1767).   Steve Coogan, who’s been cast   as Tristram, is well-known in England for his portrayal of vapid talk show host Alan Partridge; in “Tristram,” as in Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes,” he slyly plays himself as a bloke who can’t quite hide his self-interest, insecurity, lack of knowledge of what he’s talking about, and general shabbiness of character.  

I haven’t read Sterne’s novel (and in this I am in the company of Coogan, whose occasional doomed efforts to have a run at the book are a recurring joke).   To Coogan’s chagrin, the book was so very “postmodern” before its time that Tristram’s not even been born by the end of it (to compensate they’ve given Coogan the role of Tristram’s father as well).   Further threatening his status as star of the film is his mate Rob Brydon, who’s been cast as Tristram’s uncle; Brydon plays himself as an earnest nice guy, vaguely childlike, who’s quite unable to dissemble a la Coogan.   One of the film’s chief pleasures is the spot-on timing and improvisatory feel of the banter between these two good comedians as they worry over, say, whose costume shoes have higher platforms.   Each enjoys commenting on the other’s illusions and pretensions.    

One of the few people in the film not playing herself is the Afro-Brit actress Naomie Harris, so fetching in her winter cap as a production assistant who is a film buff.   I was stirred powerfully when, to a roomful of cast and crew lamenting the paucity of troops in their film’s staging of the battle of Namur of 1695 (viewing the rushes, one actor exclaims, “I’m leading an army of tens!”), Harris evokes the austerity of the battle scenes in Bresson’s “Lancelot Du Lac”.   Ah, she even gives the proper French title!   The entire room get that “What’s she on about?” look in their eyes with which we film devotees are sadly intimate.      

“Tristram” is anything but a typical period piece.   It’s not for everyone, but fun for connoisseurs of irony and sarcasm, those cornerstones of British comedy.

 

- Mar 12, 2006

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