UK 2005. Cert: 15. 94 mins. Dir: Michael Winterbottom. Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Shirley Henderson, Dylan Moran, David Walliams, Jeremy Northam, James Fleet, Stephen Fry, Naomie Harris, Ian Hart, Gillian Anderson
Movie Review by Ian Winterton
You don’t have to be familiar with The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gent, Laurence Sterne’s groundbreaking 18th century novel, to get a lot out of A Cock And Bull Story. Indeed, all you need to know about the book is that it is considered the most unfilmable book in history. As Coogan intones in the film, Sterne was “post-modern before there was any modernism to be post about”, with his narrator trying to give us the story of his life but getting so caught up in the lives of his forebears that, by the end of 312 chapters, he hasn’t finished describing his birth yet.
The filmmakers’ approach is simple – make the movie about the making of the film of Tristram Shandy, simultaneously exposing the follies of the film business, illuminating the novel’s major themes (mortality, unreliable narrators, human vanity) while stating from the off that they don’t stand a chance of succeeding – and works brilliantly.
Flitting back and forth between scenes set within the novel and the foolhardy struggle of the filmmakers, A Cock And Bull Story is consistently hilarious, thought-provoking and brimming with energy. The post-modernism isn’t just a one-way street, as it spills out into our world with stars Coogan, Brydon and, in a cameo, Gillian Anderson, starring as themselves. As with the book, knowledge of these celebrities isn’t essential to enjoying the movie but, particularly when Coogan is shown discussing his extra-marital affairs with his agent, it adds an extra level of enjoyment.
Shot primarily on hand-held digital, A Cock And Bull Story is similar to Winterbottom’s triumphant 24 Hour Party People (the real Tony Wilson appears as himself, interviewing Coogan), only even better. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that, while the earlier film relied on the sublime talents of Coogan, here he’s joined by the equally talented Rob Brydon.
A Cock And Bull Story was one of the audience favourites at last year’s Leeds International Film Festival – if you didn’t catch it then, now’s your chance to see the most pretentious, self-referential, unsufferable smug and – oh yes – fantastic British film for years.
First published in The Leeds Guide magazine in 2005.