Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story


A movie review by James Berardinelli

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story


United Kingdom, 2005

U.S. Release Date:


Running Length:


MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:



Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Keely Hawes, Jeremy Northam, Naomie Harris, Kelly Macdonald, Ian Hart, Stephen Fry, Gillian Anderson


Michael Winterbottom


Martin Hardy, based on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq. by Laurence Sterne


Marcel Zyskind


Michael Nyman

U.S. Distributor:




Pardon me for wondering if director Michael Winterbottom is obsessed with cock (with or without the bull). Maybe I'm just saying that because I have been unfortunate enough to see his previous outing, 9 Songs, which avoided showing up behind the curtain in video stores because its distributor promoted it as art. (Actually, despite the graphic sex and nudity, and the obligatory "money shot," it's a failure as porn, so it's a good thing it has the "art" label to fall back on.).

Winterbottom (Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland) used to be one of those reliable directors whose work one could count on to be compelling, if not always entertaining. Then, three years ago, things went off track. His snoozer of a science fiction film, Code 46, arrived stillborn. That movie's brief close-up of female genitalia seemed to provide Winterbottom inspiration for 9 Songs, one of the highest profile (to date) examples of "art porn." It's as bad as its reputation suggests. That brings us to Winterbottom's latest, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. If nothing else, this movie brings the director back to the mainstream with a soft R-rating (probably should have been PG-13).

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a strange movie. It's about two-thirds behind-the-scenes "footage" of the making of a movie based on an "unfilmable" novel, and about one-third content from this adaptation. (A film-within-a-film.) The tone is lighthearted and the performances are effective but, in the end, the feature is so inconsequential as to leave no lasting impression.

Perhaps The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq. by Laurence Sterne is unfilmable. By making the movie in this fashion, Winterbottom has ventured an opinion that this is the case. The film is more about the making of the feature than telling Tristram's story. We see some of Tristram Shandy- scenes associated with the title character's conception and birth - but the rest of the picture is about script rewrites, dealing with budget limitations, and actor Steve Coogan's attempts to have sex with his girlfriend, Jenny (Kelly Macdonald). There are some winning comedic vignettes - Coogan coping with low-budget special effects by hanging upside-down in a "see-through womb," the discussion that results in Gillian Anderson joining the production as the Widow Wadman, and a make-up room chat between Coogan and Rob Brydon about noses and teeth.

"Slight" is the best way to describe Tristram Shandy. That's a departure for Winterbottom, who is best known for heavy fare. The level of nudity is minimal (Keely Hawes' bare butt) - a contrast with the aforementioned 9 Songs. This seems almost like an interim movie - something thrown together before Winterbottom starts his next serious effort. The actors treat the material with respect, both those who play fictionalized versions of themselves and those who play the creations of Winterbottom and screenwriter "Martin Hardy" (Hardy is a pseudonym for Winterbottom and his frequent collaborator, Frank Cottrell Boyce). Steve Coogan is the lead, and proves to be a good sport, allowing himself (and his ego) to be ridiculed. Kelly Macdonald and Naomie Harris are standouts, exhibiting plenty of sex appeal in addition to acting ability. And some relatively large names - Jeremy Northam, Stephen Fry, Gillian Anderson - fit into small parts.

Tristram Shandy is enjoyable in a non-demanding way, but it's not the kind of motion picture that will attract widespread appeal or be remembered long after its release. And anyone expecting a legitimate adaptation of Laurence Sterne's book will be unhappy with the final result. For others, it's an amiable diversion, but nothing more.

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