I first learned about Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy as a senior in college. It was a book that carried a strange aura, not the awe-inspiring reverence of the canon but more of a "wait and see" wink to the prospective reader. I did read the novel, all 600 pages of it, and it was indeed a singular experience. Tristram Shandy is a book about digression, the tangential, and the final impossibility of coherence. It tries to follow the life of young Tristram but keeps getting lost along the way -- simply put, not the kind of book that would make for a good adaptation to film.
Yet Michael Winterbottom, director of 24-Hour Party People and 9 Songs, has done a tremendous job adapting not the content but the spirit of Sterne's tremendously experimental and frankly postmodern novel into Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Winterbottom has made a film about making a film, not an original conceit these days but one that perfectly suits the self-reflexive nature of the novel. Winterbottom not only weaves back and forth between the characters and the actors who play them, he manages to overlay some of the novel onto the "real world," brilliantly intertwining two plots.
Tristram Shandy concerns a young lord and his pregnant wife, who is carrying the hero of our story, Tristram. In the film, Steve Coogan plays Tristram's father, Lord Shandy, Tristram the narrator/author, and himself as a self-absorbed actor and new father. This alone should give you some sense of the multiple levels that Winterbottom is playing with here, both by following Sterne and by extending him.
Yet the film, unlike the novel, hardly ever drags. The period scenes are bawdy, almost farcical pieces, and behind the scenes, the story sparkles with the chemistry between Coogan and Rob Brydon, who plays Lord Shandy's overly sensitive brother Uncle Toby.
Don't go to this film expecting to get anywhere. There is, like any good cock and bull story, no resolution and precious little progress. But there are a lot of laughs, some wonderful performances, and even a bit of emotional resonance, provided mostly by Coogan, who learns a thing or two from the whole experience about what it means to be a father, a son, and a friend. Winterbottom's experiment pays off, and, with any luck, it will encourage a few moviegoers to try Tristram Shandy (the book) for themselves.