Beware. For Funny Cow is not the film you might be expecting it to be. It’s pitched itself as the story of a female comedian trying to make it on the comedy circuit in 1970s Northern England but proves far more interested in the turbulent childhood and marriage that proceeded it. Maxine Peake is Funny Cow, the otherwise nameless protagonist brought to life by her typically raw and vulnerable performance. She’s also accompanied by Funny Calf, played by charismatic newcomer Macy Shackleton as Peake’s childhood self whom she frequently comes face to face with. Adrian Shergold’s second feature film is a blunt but theatrical affair with an icy, cynical exterior that makes it quite tricky to like. Still, it confirms the director’s confident vision and ambition which was first apparent in the criminally under-appreciated Pierrepoint from over thirteen years ago. Funny Cow reminded me greatly of last year’s independent British feature Daphne which had the same isolating atmosphere and an equally unapologetic and unlikable lead character. Both films ironically stayed with me because of just how impacting I found their rude, cold manner. For a film about comedy, things don’t get much less bleak than Funny Cow. Almost all of the film’s comedy comes from the pain and suffering at the heart of the story, forming a protective comforting blanket around a woman who’s experienced violence and toxic masculinity at every turn. Funny Cow promises romance, a story of success and countless jokes a minute. It keeps all of these promises but in the darkest of ways.
Alcoholism, domestic violence, suicide and broken relationships are all swept up off the floor and scattered over the audiences in the smoke filled rooms our central character occupies. Despite the film’s premise, there is very little on stage performance contained within the film itself. It is mainly run down 1950s houses where we gather in corners to witness boozed up mothers and abusive fathers in turmoil. Alongside Peake there are striking performances from veteran character actor Alun Armstrong and Lindsay Coulson. We also remain in typically safe hands with both Paddy Considine and Stephen Graham. I found Richard Hawley’s frequently returning original song rather irritating and patronising, simplifying the vicious working class story at the film’s heart. Never shying away from the uncomfortable language of the time, the film contains the typically racist, intolerant “humour” of the time. This makes for rather uneasy viewing but successfully paints a painfully accurate picture of a very specific time and place. There is more nicotine in the air than oxygen in a Northern town on its knees. Cobbled, dilapidated alleys are childhood playgrounds whilst mothers lean on door frames, warmed from cooking brandy. In the film’s opening minutes, a permed, peroxide blonde Peake strolls through these familiar surroundings, a vision of all things 1980s, looking back at a childhood far from the world she now inhabits. Funny Cow is a sombre tale of struggle and survival in which being funny is a talent born out of necessity. It’s all about class, culture and comedy – very much in that order.
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