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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.4 (2006) 579-581
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A Cock and Bull Story
Laurence Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–67) has been translated into at least a dozen other languages in its 250 year history, including French and German, Spanish and Italian, Swedish and Polish, Dutch and Portuguese. It has also been "translated" more recently into a modernist and then postmodernist fiction—no other British writer of the eighteeenth century has had more influence on twentieth-century authors than Sterne; indeed, the list of those who have acknowledged his influence and achievement is breath-taking: Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Thomas Mann, Italo Svevo, B. S. Johnson, Fuentes, Rushdie, Goytisolo, Kundera, Perec. With this in mind, the trope that appears in this first film version—and has reappeared with regularity among the reviewers (e.g., Richard Corliss in Time, January 30, 2006, 65)—that Tristram Shandy is an unread classic, is probably more intended to elevate both the film makers and the film critics, who want to stake their claim to literacy, than to any desire to comment truthfully or usefully on a book central to the West's literary tradition for over two centuries. Michael Winterbottom, a British director with a flair for oddity ("Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last," as Johnson would have it), has demonstrated that Tristram Shandy can be translated into film. Unfortunately, that demonstration occupies only twenty minutes of this ninety-minute film, otherwise taken up with quite unsuccessful—and at times painfully dull—reflections on the making of the film, the so-called private lives of the actors, and the intrusions of those who support the industry, from tabloid journalists to financial backers, from [End Page 579] prop handlers to production runners. How much of what was good in this film was left on the cutting-room floor is anyone's guess—everything bad, however, seems to have been retained, Mr. Winterbottom and his cast having that one great flaw the best comic writers avoid: self-satisfaction with one's own wittiness.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story had its first showing at Shandy Hall, Coxwold, Yorkshire during the summer of 2005 and has been screened since in some of the major metropolitan areas in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Winterbottom and his producer, Andrew Eaton, have collaborated on a good number of films in the past decade, including Wonderland, 24 Hour Party People, In This World, Code 46, and 9 Songs; all have been admired by aficionados of film experimentation and innovation, but none has attracted significant public notice, and certainly not on this continent.
While some effort has been made to overcome this problem in Cock and Bull Story by including a few actors familiar to American audiences (Jeremy Northam, Stephen Fry, Gillian Anderson), much of an American's disappointment with this film, and perhaps especially an American Sternean, is that the primary actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, are relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic, yet much of the film seems to depend on an intimate knowledge of their film and TV careers, their tabloid existence, their relationship to one another. Coogan plays both Tristram and Walter, which represents a huge mistake in casting: he is too tall and too young by far for Walter, too short and too healthy for Tristram. Brydon as Toby is simply undeveloped; most of his acting, in fact, consists of playing himself in high competition with Coogan. That playful conflict carries over into his role as Toby, and the two brothers never reach anything like Sterne's fraternal sympathy. Keeley Hawes, playing Mrs. Shandy, is limited to screaming a great deal (three days' worth, she notes, when commenting on the shooting of her scenes) as she delivers Tristram. As with cable medical TV, one assumes this...