Cinema history is littered with attempts to film the unfilmable novel. Whether it’s Ulysses, Apocalypse Now or Catch 22, labyrinthine plots, loquacious styles and rampant experimentalism have been adapted and brought to the big screen – with varying degrees of success. Still, declaring something unfilmable is a bit like waving a red rag at a bull. You know that there’s some filmmaker out there ready to – probably smoke erupting from their nostrils – ready to charge straight in and prove that there are ways to commit it to celluloid. So it’s unsurprising that Michael Winterbottom decided to bring Tristram Shandy to the cinema.

For those of you who missed English class on that day, Tristram Shandy was written in the 18th Century by Laurence Sterne. Ostensibly the simple story of an English Gentleman, the story caused a sensation by thoroughly satirizing the conventions of the novel. It was self-referential and full of ironic ideas of time, perception and reality. Just how could Winterbottom bring the novel – that had confounded and astounded readers for hundreds of years – without losing its essence. Very simply. He hasn’t really filmed the novel at all.

Steve Coogan plays Tristram Shandy, a gentleman and a scholar. He also plays Steve Coogan, an actor of some repute who is making a film of Tristram Shandy. He’s also joined by film co-stars Rob Brydon (who plays Rob Brydon), Shirley Henderson (who plays Shirley Henderson) and Kelly MacDonald (who plays someone else). Jumping back and forth from scenes of Tristram Shandy and the behind the scenes shenanigans of making the film (including Coogan’s dalliance with a production runner, Mark Williams as a over zealous historical advisor and – in a rather uncomfortable moment for some members of the press audience – a slimy journalist tries to profile Coogan), the movie is more a series of vignettes than a coherent narrative. And, as such, the film works very much as a self referential look at the movie making business. Poking fun at scriptwriters, the process of casting (a decision to bring Gillian Anderson on set is particularly funny) and the agony of watching the rushes are all dealt with a mischievous air.

Holding everything together is Coogan. Whether playing Shandy or a skewed version of himself, his deadpan delivery and flair for physical comedy provides the heart of the film. Yet, whilst he deserves the praise for preparing to play himself as a bit of a bastard, his character is still a bit of bastard who’s rich and gets laid a lot. It’s Brydon who really goes to town on himself. As a character paranoid about his talent with an almost painful need for constant attention (witness the hilarious Pacino vs. Pacino impression shoot-out at the end of the film) he confirms his brilliance by showing himself to be absolutely crap: a paradox that Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy would be proud of.

To try and describe Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in small soundbites is inherently masochistic, and so is trying to review the film. But for what it’s worth, A Cock And Bull story is a funny, freewheeling film about the nature of cinema, a classic novel and some bovine creatures. Yep, that’ll do it…

A Cock and Bull Story is out now.