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Comparing Tristram and Tom

Posted at 5:32 PM on August 8, 2006 by Euan Kerr

Michael Winterbottom caused a little stir earlier this year with his mind-twisting "Tristram Shandy: a cock and bull story." Built around the confluence of self-involved comic Steve Coogan and the belief that Laurence Sterne's 1760 novel is unfilmable, the movie tells both Tristram's story, and the tale of trying to make a film.

It's an intriguing little party piece, as long as you can tolerate Coogan's smug demeanor. A great deal of the film features Coogan, dressed as the title character, arguing with his real life side-kick Rob Byron, who plays Captain Toby Shandy, Tristram's (possibly) emasculated uncle. Much of the dispute is over who should get the most attention on screen in the film.

It was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. Yet the film left me wanting more, even with the enlightening DVD extra of actor Stephen Fry, who has a small part in the film, visiting the museum in Sterne's home and learning more about both the book and its creation.

What is it that is both so attractive and so tough about filming 18th century novels? The fact that there are so many pages of course, but still a good story is a good story.

That sense of mild frustration led me to the film adaptation of another 18th century classic. "Tom Jones," is the Oscar-winning 1963 Albert Finney vehicle based on the Henry Fielding novel. It's a wordy tome too, rife with tales of the debauched life of the English landed gentry.

It's a long film, even having cut the story down to a minimum. Finney was dapper fellow 40 years ago, and a far cry from the craggy jowled man-mountain of the present. He cuts a fine figure as he romances his lady love Sophie Weston (Susannah York) even as he repeatedly finds himself entangled with a succession of other women. There is even a mild attempt at skewering the sexual hypocrisy of the time, which was probably quite daring in 1963.

Yet this was unsatisfying too. I have yet to see either version of "Dangerous Liaisons" (Vadim or Frears) or the Milos Forman "Valmont." Research again! More movies! Life is tough.

Opinions anyone?

August 2006
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