Maxine Peake, Tony Pitts, Stephen Graham, Paddy Considine, Alun Armstrong
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…somewhat melodramatic, but truthful, and the core relationships, themes and emotions that run through the film are wholly universal.
Funny Cow is billed as a ‘rise to stardom’ tale about a female comedian working in Northern England in the 1970s and ‘80s. Although this is the bones of the film, this premise (and the poster) might have you expecting a light-hearted, conventional and uplifting film. And this just isn’t the case. The film does use comedy and glimpses of comedic success as a vehicle to explore the main character’s troubled childhood (and resultantly turbulent adulthood), but the comedy isn’t the main feature.
You might have noticed that we haven’t given the central character a name – and that’s because we never learn it. She is referred to as fat cow, stupid cow and, ultimately, Funny Cow, which she adopts as her stage name. The titular role is played by British TV vet Maxine Peake, with Tony Pitts, Paddy Considine, Stephen Graham and Alun Armstrong in strong support, and the ensemble also includes cameos from comedians John Bishop and Jim Moir, Dexy’s frontman Kevin Rowland, singer Corinne Bailey Rae and Richard Hawley, who also composed the soundtrack for the film.
Funny Cow is somewhat melodramatic, but truthful, and the core relationships, themes and emotions that run through the film are wholly universal.
The film spans four decades (early ‘50s to late ‘80s) and jumps around in a non-linear, stream-of-consciousness fashion that is told almost entirely from Funny Cow’s perspective. Although this disjointed and somewhat objective structure is unique and entertaining, at times it makes connecting with the story and its characters a little difficult. It also means that the film asks more questions than it answers, and this might be frustrating for some viewers.
Funny Cow is an interesting, belligerent, relatable and amusing character. Having embraced her outsider status as a child, she now only really feels at home on stage, where she makes sense of her life through comedy. “I’ve got no choice,” she says. “I can’t do what everybody else does, I can’t be a civilian, I’ve no backbone. I got a funny bone instead.” Although we do get glimpses of Funny Cow’s on-stage comedy, we wish the film had incorporated a little more.
Certain characters (e.g. the typical abusive father, the violent husband and the intellectual middle-class lover) came across as one-dimensional, and although intentional (to highlight Funny Cow’s uniqueness), it leaves you wanting to see more of their complexity as human beings. One of the most heartbreaking and ‘whole’ characters in the film (aside from Funny Cow) is the mother – played fantastically by Christine Bottomley (younger) and Lindsey Coulson (older). The relationship between Funny Cow and her increasingly-lonely mother is the most powerful in the film, and it’s where love and reconciliation can be found.
Despite its premise and title, Funny Cow is not very funny. There are moments of humour, but there’s not quite enough to balance out the overall bleakness of Funny Cow’s early life or the depressing portrayal of Northern England at the time. One thing is for sure – this film will make you damn grateful that you didn’t grow up as a woman in ‘70s Rotherham.
A unique drama and an intimate portrayal of a person coming to terms with their past and slowly becoming the person they want to be; this is a journey we can all relate to, just don’t see it if you’re in the mood for a lighthearted rags-to-riches comedy.