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In his Journals, John Fowles records an incident during the filming of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The film-makers had adapted the novel’s postmodern structure by making it in part a film about making the film of the novel. At one point Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, while supposedly filming a scene from the novel, are supposed to have a bitter personal argument. After a day spent filming this, one of the technicians on the set remarked on how unprofessional the actors were, letting a personal argument get in the way of filming like that.

I was reminded of that blurring of the boundaries between the real and the fictional when Maureen and I went to see A Cock and Bull Story yesterday. This is the film of Laurence Sterne’s wonderful and famously unfilmable novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and the film-makers have again got over the unfilmability of the novel by making this a film about the making of the film. As such I think it is wonderfully true to the spirit of the novel, Sterne would have approved. And given the constraints – it’s a short film anyway, and given the structure less than 50% is actually directly from the novel – it’s astonishing how much of that sprawling, chaotic, nine-volume work they have managed to put into the film. Even down to the oddities: the squiggle is missing, but the blank page is there.

Tristram Shandy is primarily a novel designed to show that a real life, with all its digressions and diversions, can never be fully encompassed within the confines of a novel. By the end of the film you are similarly astounded that they actually have a film to show. We get rushes, we get script conferences, we get hurried revisions, we get adverts for the extra features on the DVD, we get all the prats that surround the film (I have never seen Cold Mountain, and up to now had no desire to, but now I want to see if they get the battle scene as badly wrong as the military ‘expert’ here says). Above all we get the actors.

Steve Coogan (someone I’ve never really cared for) plays Tristram and his father Walter, and also plays ‘Steve Coogan’, the actor playing Tristram and Walter. I came out of the film really admiring Coogan’s courage, since he made ‘Steve Coogan’ an arrogant, loutish ignoramus, and even had the nerve to include references to some famously unsavoury episodes from his own life. Though the star of the show is undoubtedly Rob Bryden, who plays Uncle Toby and also ‘Rob Bryden’, and who mercilessly guys Coogan all the way through. Their conversation over the closing credits, which had an extempore feel like much of the ‘present-day’ dialogue in the film, had us creased with laughter.

I had real doubts about going to see this film, partly because I dislike Coogan and partly because I didn’t want to see anyone fucking up Tristram Shandy, and I know MKS had even more severe reservations, but in the end we were both completely won over. I think that must count as one of the most sheerly pleasureable visits to the cinema we have enjoyed in a very long time.

First published at Livejournal, 6 February 2006.

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