The Trip to Italy

June 7, 2014
Rob Brydon & Steve Coogan in 'The Trip to Italy' (2014)
Rob Brydon & Steve Coogan in 'The Trip to Italy' (2014)

Four years ago, Michael Winterbottom had a hit with The Trip, a six-part television series, in which British comedians, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drove around the Lake District, supposedly writing a series of restaurant reviews for the Observer. The series was condensed into a feature film that seduced audiences around the world.

The Trip might have been one of those little gems that had no follow-up, but the success of the series and film has prompted Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon to have another go. In the second installment, The Trip to Italy, they take the formula abroad, with very similar results.

If you enjoyed the original film, with its stream of semi-improvised banter, wisecracks and impersonations, you won’t be disappointed in the sequel.

The major difference this time is that the sights and the hotels are more spectacular, while the characters are a little older, and cagier with one another. Instead of touring Wordsworth’s country they are tracing the footsteps of Shelley and Byron, lacing their conversations with appropriate anecdotes and quotations.

The charm of this project is that it feels utterly spontaneous, as if Coogan and Brydon are making it up as they go along. The viewer is an invisible third party, eavesdropping on their conversations, peering into their hotel rooms, prying into their secrets. And there are a few secrets – chiefly Rob’s dalliance with Lucy, an English girl who works as a deckhand on a boat they take for a spin around the Ligurian coast.

We slowly become aware of the degree to which the characters are fictionalised. Even though they use their real names and talk about their own careers and aspirations, there is no way that Rob could be having an affair on TV while phoning his wife in the evenings. The fictional Brydon has a two-year-old daughter, but the real Brydon has five kids from two marriages. The fictional Coogan has a 16-year-old son named Joe, whom he arranges to meet in Rome. The real Coogan has a daughter named Claire, who is roughly the same age.

It’s a constant tease, veering between reality and fantasy, under cover of an endless barrage of witty, competitive conversation. Even the jokey, edgy relationship between Coogan and Brydon is a construct, as they are not close friends in everyday life, let alone professional rivals.

For both men the story presents an opportunity to riff on the image by which they are known to the public. “I’m an affable man,” says Brydon. “But my public persona is even more affable than I actually am. I’m not as affable as people think.” Coogan gives the audience a taste of the character who has been written up in the tabloid press for his selfishness and sexual infidelities. (He even testified in the recent phone hacking trials.) But he also tries to show there is a sensitivity beyond the high walls of the ego.

If the dialogue provides the best reason for watching this film, it is the small twists of characterisation that keep us hooked. We’re still trying to unravel truth from fiction long after we’ve decided who does the best Michael Caine impersonations.

The Trip to Italy
Written & directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rosie Fellner, Marta Barrio
UK, rated M, 108 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7 June, 2014.