Film review: A Cock and Bull Story


A Cock and Bull Story is a film about the making of a film adaptation of the reputedly unfilmable novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Written in 1760, it is considered something of a classic by value of the fact that it is post-modern before there was anything modern for it to be ‘post’ about. The book tells the life of Shandy, as written by him, but digresses into flashbacks and other people’s lives without necessarily telling his own, and includes such oddities as a blank page for readers to fill in their own description of a character and a black page to convey the sadness of a death of one of the characters.

The film starts with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as exaggerated versions of themselves in the make-up chairs, preparing themselves for the film. Coogan and Brydon have a long association, so the hilarious dialogue about Brydon’s teeth and whether his role is a co-lead or not, ripples with authenticity and gentle rivalry. The film starts after this, with a ‘Starring (in order of appearance)’ heading to punctuate the preceding conversation, with Coogan as Shandy, talking to the camera as he begins to relate his story. There is plenty of this device, such as when he points out that the child actor playing him as a young boy was ‘the best of a bad bunch’, or he and the boy discuss how to act the pain of having a penis trapped in a window that had shut on it.

The film continues with Shandy trying to tell his story, as in the book, with many digressions into other aspects of life surrounding his own, such as how his Uncle Toby (played by Brydon) had his penis injured at a battle, the nature of his parents’ sexual congress that led to his conception, his own delivery and the strangeness of his father, as played by Coogan (a fact that he explains within the film). About halfway through the film, we hear someone shout ‘Cut!’ and the film becomes a behind-the-scenes look at the people who are trying to make the film of the unfilmable book, from the put-upon director (Northam), the writer (Hart) struggling to get the book onto screen, the producer (Fleet) trying to get extra money for the battle scenes, and the troubled life of Coogan the actor, from the new baby with his girlfriend, to the expose with a stripper in a hotel room, to his arguing with Brydon over who looks tallest in the film, to his attempts at getting his personal assistant into bed.

This is an enjoyable, clever and funny film. Michael Winterbottom is a very interesting director, and this reunion with Coogan (after the excellent 24 Hour Party People) is an addition to his always intriguing work. I have a fondness for films that include the making of films, especially where the characters laugh at themselves, as Coogan does bravely here, mocking his own tabloid-grabbing infidelities and the insecurity of the actor with a well-known baggage, in his case Alan Partridge. Although not strictly a complete adaptation of the novel, it uses the novel well, as well as the format of the film to explain it (including Stephen Fry as an expert on the novel, explaining its importance, as well as a parson within the film-within-the-film who explains the joke of the film’s title), and makes you laugh while engaging the brain, at the same time throwing in a host of well-known British faces, as well as Gillian Anderson in a lovely cameo appearance.

The film ends, most appropriately, with a screening of the film-within-the-film to the actors and crew, who seem a bit bemused by it all. The end credits roll as we see Coogan and Brydon have a hysterical discussion about the film, including an argument over who does the best Al Pacino impression, which leaves a smile on your face as you leave the cinema, perhaps the best feeling to have after the end of a film that is about the absurdity of the normal (and abnormal) life.

Rating: DAVE

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