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In Review: Funny Cow

Director: Adrian Shergold

 
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Maxine Peake is superb in Adrian Shergold’s bleak, savage yet strangely hilarious comedy-drama about the 70’s Northern comedy circuit.

The devastating kitchen sink dramas that filled our screens in the latter half of the twentieth century seem to be less and less popular in the austerity era Britain of today. Garish comic book franchises and uplifting romantic comedies appear to have somewhat derailed the much-loved locomotive of glum British social realism, with audiences apparently opting for escapism over cold hard truths about the scurrilous government and the neglected, poverty-stricken working classes. There are notable exceptions, of course, such as Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winning I, Daniel Blake, a terrific and coruscating indictment of the modern British welfare state. But such politically conscientious filmmaking is in danger, alas, of falling out of fashion. Funny Cow however, directed by veteran filmmaker Adrian Shergold (The Last Hangman, Persuasion, Mad Dogs), is refreshingly savage and (for the most part) unflinchingly authentic.

Maxine Peake plays the titular Funny Cow: a jagged and damaged comedienne, unable to escape the chaotic trauma of her upbringing, nor fully accepted back into her hometown once having left to pursue a career in stand up comedy. Her character’s real name is never revealed to the audience; a lack of identity or sense of belonging remain motifs throughout the compelling story penned by Tony Pitts (Peaky Blinders, Line Of Duty) who also delivers a terrifying performance as Funny Cow’s vituperative husband Bob.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with a special mention in dispatches going to Lindsey Coulson (The Journey) who plays Funny Cow’s late-stage alcoholic Mother with shattering conviction. In one particular scene between Mother and daughter, Coulson’s performance, full of self-loathing and bitter regret, threatens to steal the scene and the entire film. But fortunately Peake is also on scintillating form as the conflicted protagonist - desperate to escape the torment and banality of her marriage to the violent Bob, but equally squeamish being adored by Angus; an effete, bookish intellectual that attempts to lift Funny Cow out of poverty.

Angus, played by the fantastic Paddy Considine (who was my only raised eyebrow casting-wise in an otherwise pitch-perfect ensemble) as a polo-neck wearing fop, does occasionally stray into cliché, but this could be intentional. His world of corduroy and Shakespeare is, after all, absurd and entirely alien to Funny Cow, so far removed from the laundromat and bedsit to which she is familiar, that she is unable to exist within its velvet-lined boundaries. Regardless, this is a minor quibble. The story is never sentimentalised, nor does it ever condescend to the often desperate circumstances of its characters.

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Even when faced with torrid abuse at the hands of her tyrannical husband, the film does not make a victim of its central character; instead, Peake’s Funny Cow retains the indefatigable sense of humour and brazen courage that make her a success on the stages of tough working men’s clubs.

And these clubs are tough; beautifully evoked, with fusty cigarette smoke and chip shop grease-stained overalls galore. It’s grubby, grimy and vicious but one can’t help but enjoy the adversarial atmosphere of community. ‘It’s not about making them laugh, it’s about surviving,’ says our protagonist’s reluctant mentor Lenny, played with a wonderfully affected cheerfulness by the ever brilliant Alun Armstrong (Eragon). Whilst the environment and atmosphere are often drab and colourless, Shergold and Pitts still manage to pepper the film with theatrical flourishes of colour and wit that give it the quality of a rough diamond, glistening through the dirt, much as Funny Cow seems to be herself.

Some of the more ‘risque’ jokes may make you wince; Funny Cow very quickly learns that she must fight fire with fire to survive in this world of bigotry, racism and contempt. It feels like a reflective document, however, a window into the past and the film more than earns the right to cross the line of political correctness by never glamourising the bigoted ‘humour’ that Funny Cow learns from Lenny. In fact, far from remembering such an era with nostalgia, this film should deliver a stinging rebuke to the misty-eyed Brexit brigade, fondly remembering Britain like some sort of Enid Blyton wet dream of cucumber sandwiches and sunsets on the village green. Funny Cow offers a stark reminder of the deeply entrenched sexism, racism and homophobia that were once so rife in this country. It shows us how far we’ve come and how much is still to be done in order to avoid slipping back to such a status quo. As Funny Cow says herself of the fear within, 'It’s the monster behind the eyes.' 

Let’s hope the monster of Funny Cow’s world stays dormant. JT