The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was a novel by Yorkshire clergyman Laurence Sterne in the mid-18th century; it was an experimental, nine-volume work that played with the form of the novel itself while simultaneously parodying the writings of such contemporaries as Henry Fielding. Tristram - the novel - was, as the lead says within the film, "postmodern before there was a modern." The book used varying typefaces, alternate points of view, endless digressions, and other avant-garde techniques to get across its narrative; while such a work may be common today, it was absolutely unheard-of in the 18th century, when the mechanics of the modern novel were still being worked out. Such a literary piece might sound unfilmable - which is probably why the filmmakers didn't attempt it. Instead, director Michael Winterbottom and co-writer Frank Cottrell Boyce created a film-within-a-film - a movie about a movie adapting an unfilmable novel.
The narrative of Tristram - the film - concerns the filming of the book, and the doings of its cast and crew members at the same time. The point of view is shifted seemingly arbitrarily, between the fictional onscreen doings and the goings-on behind the cameras, which can be disconcerting but also amusing. For example, the story is supposed to be about the life of Tristram Shandy, but by the end of the film - just like the book - the character isn't even quite born yet. Well, not quite; we are actually shown the birth scene several times as the film moves backward and forward in time. A particularly gripping emotional scene, with the actors in character and in period costume, may end by the director and camera crew being shown in the background, breaking for the day.
The film stars Steve Coogan, probably best known to American audiences as the smarmy fictional TV show host Alan Partridge, and as the star of Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People. Here he plays three characters: Tristram himself as an adult, briefly; Tristram's father; and as a semi-fictional onscreen version of himself. We are able to see Coogan in character within the fictional movie, on set, but more importantly the onscreen Steve Coogan is the true protagonist of the picture. Within him we get to follow all of the action and are introduced to the various people working on the set; we also get to observe him being pompous, weak, petty, shallow, but also tender and loving. I have no idea how much the onscreen Coogan compares to the offscreen one - and a film created in this manner would suggest the two are similar - but it's a ballsy and fascinating thing to watch.
Coogan's partner in crime, in the sense of two naughty schoolboys who can't be seated close together, is Rob Brydon, who within the film plays both Tristram's uncle Toby and also a semi-fictional version of himself. Toby is an amusing character, obsessed with the military campaigns in which he's taken part, building elaborate miniatures of them and boring everyone within earshot with his tales, particularly the one in which he is wounded in the groin. The onscreen Rob Brydon is just a funny guy and a nice fellow to have around, never quite making a nuisance of himself but always piping in with a witty remark on everything.
In fact, the relationship between (onscreen) Coogan and Brydon is at the heart of the film. The movie opens with the two of them gently prodding one another while in the makeup chair, Coogan attempting to assert his more prominent role with Brydon not allowing him any of it. Similarly, the film ends the same way, with the two again together, sitting within an empty theater and both commenting on their performances and again gently picking on one another. The two seem genuinely close (and they both provided a fun commentary for the DVD) and watching them trying to top one another is very amusing. The informal, conversational opening serves to provide the film at its beginning with an informality that immediately informs the viewer on what not to expect.
The supporting cast is absolutely excellent, showing off an array of British actors and actresses that deserve to be better known, at least in the United States. Stephen Fry (of Fry and Laurie - anybody watch House?) has a small role, as does David Walliams of Little Britain. I counted at least three actors who were in the Harry Potter films, including Mark Williams (The Fast Show ) and Shirley Henderson (Topsy Turvy). Comedian Dylan Moran (Black Books) also appears as a very disheveled doctor.
Showing its actors as characters, the film is also about the movie-making process itself. Filmed largely upon an enormous country estate, Tristram shows the actors as a sort of temporary community, close-knit and sort of cloistered, shunning outsiders even though they might be wives or children. In many ways the film comments on film itself, and how the artifice of the process of creating a movie can become self-referential. Musical cues are taken from other works - including, I noticed, the score for The Draughtsman's Contract, a similarly difficult-to-apprehend Peter Greenaway film that also takes place within the 18th century.
Only one character in the film, however, seems conversant with the language of film studies and themes. The production assistant Jenny (played by Naomie Harris) is able to speak knowledgeably about the works of such auteur directors as Fassbinder and Bresson; she is also intimated to be the only character to have actually read the novel on which the whole production is based. Naturally, her knowledge is wasted and she is here reduced to getting everyone coffee and developing a crush on Coogan.
At one point the fictional film creators are shown having an informal conference, and someone asks, "Why make the film, anyway?" Someone only half-jokingly answers "Because it's funny?" And that answer is accepted. What novelist Sterne and filmmaker Winterbottom have to show us is basically this: Life is messy. It doesn't follow a straightforward plot. It is filled with endless digressions and contradictions. And if it's genuinely funny, that should be good enough.