This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  February 17, 2006

Real life and fantasy mix on film

In 'Tristam Shandy,' egos clash; 'Bubble' tells a working-class tale; 'Nanny McPhee' works her magic


Though Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has an honored place in surveys of English literature, the sad truth is few students actually read this 18th-century comic novel, and even teachers often fail to finish its more than 650 pages. This is not because it lacks “naughty” passages to entertain undergraduates but because it is packed with digressions and learned irrelevancies, some of its humor deriving from the fact that the narrator is not even born for several volumes.

Director Michael Winterbottom does not pretend to turn the novel into a movie. Instead, in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, he focuses on the clash of egos among the actors in the English country home used as the movie set.

One of the funniest scenes in both the movie and the book is that in which Tristram’s father argues with Uncle Toby about the battle of Namur, in which Toby suffered a serious groin injury. The latter is so obsessed with the event that he has built a large model of the battlefield outside on the lawn. While the mother upstairs is screaming in labor hour after hour, the two men below argue serenely in blind innocence.

The largest contemporary ego belongs to the well-known English comedian Steve Coogan, who plays Tristram, his father Walter and himself. His antagonist in humor, Uncle Toby, is Rob Brydon. The two are arguing before the story begins; Steve will even drive the wardrobe women crazy making sure his heels make him taller than Rob.

Unlike the book, much of whose humor depends on the snail’s pace with which it progresses, everything moves rapidly with more good jokes than one can follow.

Steve receives a visit from Jenny (Kelly Macdonald), who arrives with their infant son, interrupting his casual flirtation with a pretty production assistant (Naomie Harris). Jeremy Northam plays the director, who remains calm while dealing with all the insane demands of production.

“Tristram” is an entertaining curiosity not intended to displace the original. Its sly humor and vitality might even cause a few to say, “Now I want to read the book.”

Bubble, a minimalist story of working-class life on the West Virginia-Ohio border, is the first of six low-budget films made by Steven Soderbergh to be distributed simultaneously to theaters, cable and DVD. The three main actors are nonprofessionals, rarely show emotion and spend their days assembling plastic figures in a small doll factory. As they squeeze bald heads so that eyeballs can be popped in, we wait for something to happen.

Overweight, middle-aged Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) seems the most sympathetic; she takes care of her disabled father, drives Kyle, a younger coworker (Dustin James Ashley), to the factory and tells him during a coffee break that he’s her best friend. Kyle seems noncommittal, but gives silent attention to Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), an attractive but rather unpleasant single mother hired to help fill a rush order at the factory.

Mr. Soderbergh isn’t condescending to his milieu but doesn’t dig deeply into his characters’ hopes and fears. Though she is not shy, Rose is unforthcoming about her life; she gets Martha to baby-sit one night for her little girl without telling her she has a date with Kyle. The coworkers have a couple of beers, then go back to his room, where no sexual advances or revealing conversations take place, and Kyle drives her home. Martha has put Rose’s little girl to bed; suddenly there is a violent pounding on the door. It is Rose’s ex-husband demanding money; though belligerent, he eventually leaves.

Shockingly, the movie then turns away from naturalism and becomes a murder mystery, the details of which I leave unrevealed. The ending is kept in shadows, many specifics are unexplained, and the effect is bleak. Though “Bubble” is skillfully made, well-acted (especially by Ms. Doebereiner) and looks at areas of American life largely ignored in film, it doesn’t do enough to make audiences care.

Nanny McPhee is aimed at children, but this sprightly English fantasy should also charm adults. Based on Christianna Brand’s 1960s Nurse Matilda books, the screenplay is by the distinguished English actress Emma Thompson, who enjoys herself thoroughly in the title role of a nanny who can work magic simply by rapping her cane on the floor.

Nanny McPhee has come to help Mr. Brown (Colin Firth), a widower with seven super-lively children. They have driven away 17 previous nannies and are threatening to eat the baby when she walks in on the hapless Mr. Brown, insisting that she has already knocked.

Nanny McPhee has an exaggerated persona, as well as ugly warts and a prominent bucktooth. Quickly going to work, she casts a spell over the children, assuring them she will stay when they need her but don’t want her, and leave when they want her but don’t need her.

The best scenes show how the supposedly severe Nanny McPhee uses her magic to win over the soon-delightful children. The plot emphasizes the family’s financial dependence on fierce Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury), who tells Mr. Brown they will be cut off unless he marries in a month. Since Aunt Adelaide has carried off the pretty scullery maid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), removing an attractive possibility, in desperation he decides to become engaged to a snobbish, vulgar widow, Mrs. Quickly (Celia Imrie), who does not like the children. Even dull viewers can see how things will work out, with the children’s ingenious mischief easily routing the widow and Evangeline returning in glory.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film critic. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 17, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: