"The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman"
by Laurence Sterne
"Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story"
This "Tristram Shandy" is a shambles of switching between the story, the generations of its subjects, and the travails and triumphs of its film crew. Carrying us through the melange as narrator is actor Steve Coogan playing Tristram Shandy, Walter Shandy (Tristram's father), and himself, Steve Coogan. See what I mean? Linear clarity is not the overriding purpose of the enterprise. In fact, it's meant to avoid it.
The work on which it's based is "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" by Laurence Sterne, an 18th century pastor of Yorkshire. His book was published in 9 volumes from 1759 to 1767 and received a great reception. Screenwriter Martin Hardy, in creative alliance with director Michael Winterbottom ("Code 46"), adapted its trailblazing structural techniques, a narrator who frequently addresses the reader and discusses his choices as well as his narrative excursions.
What's told in such a vivid and apparently extemporaneous disregard for conventions is a costume non-drama of a film intended to parallel the original, the family story of one of the richest men of his time, his son, wives, servants, and mundane details of life in a huge mansion of the time. Both the cock and the bull of the title are given their due.
Walter Shandy is a man of details. We're not made aware of the business acumen that supports the household, but get deeply into concerns about the shape of his nose, the method of delivery of his son (he won't have a local midwife!) and his son's naming. In classically comedic fashion, everything he gets involved with seems to go wrong. For example, the name of "Tristram" for his son is the one he explicitly forbids.
The narrator takes us into Uncle Toby's (Rob Brydon) military experience as Captain Shandy at the Battle of Namur, a subplot of the film that's sadly underfunded and so poorly produced that it's excised from the final cut. We are treated to the producers' commiserations over it. When the production team manages to get Gillian Anderson ("The X-Files") to join the cast, there's an infusion of additional production money but, alas, not enough to quite salvage the battlefield footage.
Note that we're suddenly in a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the film and the crew. Which is how the film itself does it in a sort of tongue-in-cheek inside gag at the unfilmability of the original book. So why bother? I can't answer that question except that it provided work for a band of British actors and one Canadian.
Steve Coogan, who might be best remembered in America for his star turn as Phileas Fogg in the 2004 version of "Around the World in 80 Days" keeps a level of steady guidance through the characterization and the mish mosh of the alter reality with a charm and charisma that could be described as nicely British.
Shirley Hendersen is always a standout and here, as maid Susannah, acquits herself as well and uniquely as the scenario permits. Gillian Anderson, with an even smaller role, is looking slim and better than ever and Jeremy Northam is good in a barely visible part. Most thrilling for me to see again is Scottish Kelly Madonald, an actress of great sexy appeal who was Peter Pan in "Finding Neverland" and shows up here as Tristram Shandy's wife. This is a lady we should be seeing a great deal more of and she's worth noting, as is Naomie Harris as an overeager production assistant who wants to seduce the star.
What it all amounts to is a vehicle that's as experimental as the book from which it's derived, nicely photographed by Marcel Zyskind, with a bizarre edge that somehow manages to provide period and modern amusements in a charade of slightly fascinating wit and tribulation. It should find a fair reception in the art houses and greatest support from our Brit ex-pat demographic.