A song by neo-punk satirists, The KLF, once ironically claimed ‘It’s Grim Up North’; a reference to the perceived life in northern England, and Adrian Shergold’s dramady, Funny Cow, does little to dispel this stereotypical declaration of the grimy, matter-of-fact attitudes held by its denizens.
Saturated in the misty nicotine swirls of 1970’s working-men’s clubs (a social staple of post-industrial Britain) Shergold’s soft-focus drama is an imagined biography of sorts, trailing the life of the titular ‘Funny Cow’ (Maxine Peake); the self-deprecating stage (and only) name of our narrator, on her way to stardom. Framed through a comedy routine delivered to an invisible audience, she narrates and recounts a troubled life of domestic abuse and restlessness as she digs herself out of poor relationships with everyone around her.
As with all good comedy raconteurs, there’s a depressing story between the punchlines; a bitterness crossing from the sardonic to a piercing pathos, leaving a sleuthing audience decoding the truth from the embellishments. Funny Cow’s story is doled out in undated chapters, transitioning from young (Funny Calf), to teen, to adult indiscriminately, until we catch up with the Funny Cow of today – a presumably successful Victoria Wood-like comedian of the late 80s, soliloquising the very tale we are watching.
Peake’s lead is, without exception, astonishingly captivating and bold,
It is a film that is explicitly violent in portraying her desperate existence. She encounters brutal physical abuse at the hands of several men in her life, and yet, she laughs. She defiantly giggles at their lack of control, much like the hecklers at her performances, dispossessing and humiliating them with her talent for humour. Maxine Peake’s lead is, without exception, astonishingly captivating and bold, wearing her painted smile with a convincing affability of any comedian working today. Her Funny Cow is a progressively driven, independent woman, rarely weeping (and certainly never over dead men), motivated by a working-class background to better herself over the pathetic males she encounters.
Of these men is her husband Bob (Tony Pitts, also the debut writer of Funny Cow), a callous and dominating man (in the same vein as her abusive father, played by Stephen Graham, also on menacing form), whose idea of Neanderthal domesticity includes resorts to threats of extreme violence; unashamed of carrying them out and exerting his poor notion of masculinity upon Funny Cow. Pitts’ truly scary rule-by-fist is shockingly unflinching, more so as Shergold doesn’t shy away from these moments. These borderline-offensive scenes certainly add an authenticity to the Funny Cow’s plight and swells her resolve, but they occasionally have an excessively exploitative atmosphere about them, as the language and broodiness does enough to convey its threatening manner. Similarly, a suicide scene in the latter end has an instructional and unnecessarily voyeuristic tone which the narrative has pre-empted well in advance.
Funny Cow is ever aware of her own situation – referring to her lover, Angus (Paddy Considine playing an inept and knowledgeable bookshop owner), as her ‘knight in shining armour’, ready to save the ‘damsel in distress’. It’s with this acute, pithy consciousness where Funny Cow avoids the pitfalls of yet another domestic abuse parable, manoeuvring towards a conclusion of satisfying reconciliations and indefinite futures.
There's an injection of levity into proceedings through Funny Cow’s amusement at her own life
As its subject concerns stand-up comedy, one would think the film would be all all-out riot. It’s certainly funny, but not where you would expect. The humour is somewhat dulled by the encroaching circumstances in which the lead finds herself. It’s difficult to laugh where prompted; there’s a dark drollness at work here, where every so often you feel an injection of some levity into proceedings through Funny Cow’s amusement at the absurd and facetious nature of her own life. In one scene, there is an especially wonderful send-up of 70’s talent shows starring some familiar British comedians as they systematically fail to capture the eye of a smarmy agent.
The music is beautiful throughout, bound together by several achingly-touching songs from the talented musician Richard Hawley, breezily lamenting Funny Cow’s life. The title song ‘Funny Cow’ feels as if it were plucked from your favourite 70’s/80’s children’s TV show (in this case, I felt there was more than a hint of Postman Pat’s theme song). However, his music is more than transitionary, giving that sense of place and time like no other and even starring in a cameo role opposite an afro-wigged, Corinne Bailey-Rae.
Adrian Shergold’s direction is second to none. He demonstrates a canny ability to convey deeper meaning in the seemingly innocuous, particularly in one scene which involves Funny Cow tumble drying clothes in a laundrette. She vacantly watches the clothes spin around, smashing against the drum, awaiting the end of their cycle, foretelling her own journey ahead.
Funny Cow is a wickedly funny film, with a self-aware streak, capturing the zeitgeist of the era perfectly thanks to the fantastic attention to detail and set dressing. Maxine Peake carries the film with a firm conviction that makes you wonder why she shouldn’t be a leading lady in more prominent films. She is without doubt one of the strongest actors in the UK, and Funny Cow provides a role which is perfect for her to display agilities. All of this is underpinned by Pitts’ deceptively complex and brilliant debut script. He is only too happy to play up the outdated brutish masculinity, racism and dust-filled Christmas Cracker jokes with a bowed head to the political incorrectness and the skewed nostalgia for a shameful, largely, bygone era.