Maxine Peake stars in this touching portrayal of a working-class female trying to make a name for herself as a stand-up comedian in 1970s working men’s clubs.
Funny Cow is divided into several sections, like chapters of a book: The First Bit, A Few Years Later, Another Bit and so on. Through this technique, the film poignantly captures the eponymous protagonist’s early years – performed brilliantly by Macy Shackleton as Funny Calf – and later her marriage to violent husband Bob (Tony Pitts) and the aftermath of her successful career. Adrian Shergold’s direction, alongside Tony Slater Ling’s cinematography, in muted tones, depicts a grim northern England – one that has appeared in the kitchen sink dramas of the 50s and 60s.
Peake’s rendering of the comic is both endearing and energised, giving the character enough depth for the audience to emotionally invest. Early on, we see the abusive childhood she experiences when her father – played terrifyingly by Stephen Graham – beats her heavily with his belt. Violent scenes like this one – and later when Bob does the same – are very harrowing to watch, but exude the realism reflected in the script, which is written by Pitts. The combination of humour and stark reality is balanced with a knowing eye, making the feature simultaneously warm and hard-hitting. Though Funny Cow – known only by her stage name – is bullied and beaten by the men who are supposed to love and protect her, producing a heaviness for viewers, it is uplifting to see her overcome these difficulties with unfaltering strength. The stand-up’s relationship with the kinder Angus – played by an almost unrecognisable Paddy Considine – presents the possibility of peace, but is sadly short-lived. Funny Cow is more than a woman in the north desperately seeking to be saved by a male hero, and it is refreshing to see the power within her, and the aspiring comedian’s determination against all those who stand in her way.
The transformation and breakthrough from her formative years are poignant, Peake giving a mesmerising performance. There is hardly a dull moment, with the leading lady’s funny cheekiness, Richard Hawley’s affecting score and strong acting from the entire cast – particularly Alun Armstrong’s failing comedian and Lindsey Coulson’s alcoholic mother – capturing the bleak harshness of life in working-class Northern England. Apart from a scene where the titular comic impersonates a Pakistani man – which, though reflecting the ignorance of the times, is still uncomfortable to watch – Funny Cow captures the challenges of being a woman in a society dominated by men.
Funny Cow is released in select cinemas on 20th April 2018.
Watch the trailer for Funny Cow here: