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Film Review: Funny Cow

29 April 18 words: Natalie Mills

Maxine Peake laughs through the tears in this grim rags-to-riches drama set in 1970s Britain.

Director: Adrian Shergold

Starring: Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine, Tony Pitts, Alun Armstrong

Running Time: 103 minutes

Funny Cow proves that even comedy is bleak up north. If you are expecting Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, you will leave disappointed – an uplifting chuckle-fest this is not. Part kitchen sink drama, part reflective character study, Shergold’s film is as tough and unflinching as Maxine Peake’s protagonist. Through a series of disjointed moments in her stormy life, we gather that “Funny Cow” becomes a successful comedian. However, the film offers only a couple of glimpses of her stand-up comedy, and one is juxtaposed with a suicide.

Rather than a chronological rise to fame, we see a mish-mash of events that eventually shape Funny Cow into someone “incapable of love”. Beaten by her father and sniffed out as an outsider by her childhood peers, she weaponises a fearless sense of humour. “Are you angry Dad? You seem angry” is reprised once she marries the similarly abusive Bob.

Maxine Peake's bright, wisecracking character seems doomed to a life of misery. We need her to escape the fate of her mother; widowed and drinking herself to death in an empty room. Her shared lust for life with Bob – shown in a joyous scene where they menace their local barman – does nothing to mellow her beatings and bloody nose. "You'll never beat me, not while you've got a fucking hole in your arse" got a collective shudder.

Spanning four decades, Funny Cow is a beautifully realised time capsule.

Enter Angus (Considine) and Lenny, proving that not every man is an utter bastard to her. Her wannabe saviour Angus is a "reasonable, optimistic and depressed" middle-class chap who can't resist her novelty. He makes a crap brew, owns a bookshop and offers her a home with "TWO FUCKING BATHROOMS!" Their love affair inevitably fizzles out – the idea of kids, Beatnik bliss and a lifetime of boring Shakespeare plays is too much. Funny Cow muses that she doesn't belong with Educated People either. Being told to shut up IS love to her.

Lenny, played gruffly by Alun Armstrong, is her reluctant mentor and gateway into the comedy circuit. After first scolding her that "women aren't funny", the tables turn as she wins over an audience tired of his jokes. Funny Cow doesn't gloss over the bigoted tastes of the time. Her virgin routine reveals the worst of the racist, homophobic 1970s. She's ruder and filthier than any of her hecklers; compared with Bob they're easy to mow down.

Despite its in-your-face horrors, Funny Cow is often very funny. It's worth seeing just for the "Search for a Star" audition hosted by Kevin Eldon. Comedy cameos also include John Bishop as Elvis (complete with hound dog) and Vic Reeves as the crappest ventriloquist ever.

Spanning four decades, Funny Cow is a beautifully realised time capsule. Its abstract structure and scenes of working-class life brings Distant Voices, Still Lives to mind. We experience the poverty of a 1950s backstreet (where they gleefully describe a new bath as “a swimming pool!”) and smell the beer, sweat and fags of a 1970s working men’s club.

Peake's unapologetically red clothes cut through a dull world that doesn't suit her. Her complex relationship with her bird-like mother is heartbreakingly salvaged on a Yorkshire beach. You'll think "Pulp's new video is a bit fucking bleak isn't it?", but in a good way.

Did you know? Tony Pitts, the film's screenwriter, co-stars as Bob. He describes Funny Cowas an "unblinking unsentimental commentary" to the culture that he grew up in.


Funny Cow is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 3 May

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