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2014/01/19

Tristram Shandy

by John Bloner, Jr.


Let's get this out of the way: Tristram Shandy, both the 18th century novel by Laurence Sterne and its 21st century (very loose) adaptation by Michael Winterbottom, involves a large farm animal and two cocks, which do not reside in a hen house, but instead in the trousers of the tale's title character and his uncle.

As as young boy, Tristram's wee thing is compromised by a falling sash window.  While he pees through its opening, the window crashes down upon his precious willy. Agony ensues, and this writhing is mirrored by the boy's uncle Toby, who took one in the groin for Mother England on the battlefield during the Siege of Namur.

Tristram Shandy, you may already recognize, is not polite company, but it is an hilarious one.


Let me also get this out of the way: I've never read the novel, although I have attempted the feat twice and only lasted a page or two. British actor Steve Coogan has also not read it, but this fact did not stop him from starring as three characters in Winterbottom's motion picture. He not only plays Tristam, but also Tristram's father, Walter (simply by slapping on a powdered wig when the occasion calls for him to appear) and as himself, or at least his public persona.

Coogan is well-known for his small-screen character, Alan Partridge, a talk show host with zero self-awareness, a hundred degrees of pomposity, and obsessions with the Swedish music group, Abba, and film actor Roger Moore as James Bond.  He's also worked several times with Tristam's director, most recently in The Look of Love and the upcoming film, The Trip To Italy.

Steve Coogan as obnoxious TV talk show host, Alan Partridge
Rob Brydon plays the role of Uncle Toby, the wounded war veteran, who spends his days in the garden, where he's constructed a miniature battleground and where he must divert questions from his nephew who wants to know the precise location where his relative was struck during warfare. Rather than give the boy an anatomy lesson, Uncle Toby takes him to the garden spot that represents the geographical region where he was injured in battle.

Brydon also plays a character named Rob Brydon, acting as a foil to Coogan. The two are an English Odd Couple with the insecure Coogan desperate to keep his fellow actor one rung below him at all times. He instructs a costume designer to modify his shoes so he will be taller than Brydon.  When the film's script is changed, providing a love story for Uncle Toby, Coogan stays awake at night, pouring over Sterne's novel, agitated that it covers one hundred pages. Meanwhile, Coogan's girlfriend lies frustrated nearby, her romantic advances foiled by a boyish rivalry.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in Tristram Shandy. Pay no attention to the cock and the bull.
These two men spar throughout Tristram Shandy, but their battle isn't over in the final credits. In 2010, they once again worked with Winterbottom on the TV series (later edited into a motion picture) The Trip.  The set-up for this film is simple.  The Observer asks Coogan to travel about the north of England, dine in its restaurants and write about them. Because his girlfriend cannot accompany him, he calls on Rob Brydon to join him, even though the two are constantly at odds, attempting to out-do each other, particularly when it comes to impressions of famous people.


Let me further get this out of the way: I adore the Scottish actress Shirley Henderson. Although she plays a small role in the film as a character named "Shirley Henderson" and as an 18th century maid, Susannah, she becomes the center-of-attention whenever she's on camera.  As Susannah, she bustles about, preparing for Tristram's birth while his mother, Elizabeth Shandy, howls in pain from an upstairs room.

She also bustles about when she is carrying the chosen name of the child from the lips of his father, who wants him to be called "Trismegitus", to the ears of the doctor delivering the birth. When the moment arrives for her to pronounce the child's name to him, her memory fails her. Instead, she blurts, "Tristram", which is absolutely the last name that Walter Shandy wanted for his offspring.  To make matters worse, the doctor had already broken the new baby's nose while pulling him from the womb with use of a forceps.

Shirley Henderson is blessed with a soft squeak of a voice and gives the impression that, even though she was in her late 30s when the film was made, she may instead be 13 going on 103.  She's woman,child and crone, but singularly delightful.

Movie audiences may remember her as the ghost Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films, Jude in two Bridget Jones Diary pictures, as Yum-Yum in Topsy Turvy, or as Gail in Trainspotting. In Topsy Turvy, a film that features backstage stories of Gilbert and Sullivan, her voice transforms into bell-like sounds.

She's more recently worked again with director Michael Winterbottom in his films, The Look of Love (with Steve Coogan) and in Everyday.

Shirley Henderson plays the maid, Susannah, and a character named "Shirley Henderson" in the film
Since viewing Tristram Shandy, I return to it from time to time, to enjoy both its 18th century scenes and its modern day depiction of a film crew that's trying to put together a motion picture, based on a book, that's considered unfilmable.  I also look forward to any film made by Michael Winterbottom and his Tristram cast, whether they are working with him or other directors.

For more information on the film, its cast and director, click HERE.

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