February 17, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 07
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Monday, Mar 08, 2021



Winterbottom tackles the unfilmable in Tristram Shandy
Winterbottom tackles the unfilmable in Tristram Shandy
by Derich Mantonela - SGN A&E Writer

Opening Today at the Guild 45th

Laurence Sterne's Eighteenth Century novel, "The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" has often been called the most important English language novel, which almost nobody has read. It has also been deemed one of the world's most "unfilmable" books, and - as if to prove that point - British director Michael Winterbottom ("24 Hour Party People") has tackled it with his version, simply called "Tristram Shandy."

Winterbottom knows an impossible task when he sees it, so he has made very little effort here to capture more than a chapter or two of Sterne's rambling, scrambled narrative, which is avant-garde, eccentric, in-your-face stuff, self-consciously pretentious and schizophrenic, a scenario which jumps all over the place, constantly commenting upon itself, addressing the reader directly with the oddest of asides, observations and contentions.

Winterbottom borrows liberally from Tony Richardson's Sixties take on another Eighteenth Century classic, "Tom Jones." The same frenetic, flustering pace, the cute, coy asides to the audience, the self-flattering cleverness, with casual references to the supposed hip snobbery and cruelty of the era it depicts, with some flip, raunchy sex thrown into the bargain.

This is more a movie about the making of the movie of the "unfilmable" book than it is about the content of the novel itself. Winterbottom's take here is to capture the saucy, smartass "spirit" of Sterne's writing, rather than to concentrate on its sociological or biographical aspects.

Lead actor Steve Coogan (a comedian) plays Shandy, Shandy's father, and also the actor Steve Coogan playing those roles. About a third of the way through, the film veers almost exclusively to the present time, where we listen in and watch as the actors vie with each other for camera time, writers push for inclusion of their favorite scenes, complicated by squabbling input and interference from producers, costumers and other principals, while the "director as god/director as lackey" dichotomy contributes to further chaos. Egos run amok.

All of which might have been enough to push "Tristram Shandy," the movie, beyond the ordinary, had we not already seen this particular "backstage" approach many times before.

This is a mildly amusing movie, though hardly remarkable and certainly not very original. Which is surprising and disappointing, given the startlingly unique nature of this most "unfilmable" of books. But if Winterbottom set out to prove exactly that, he seems to have pleaded a good case.

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