Director Adrian Shergold’s morbidly gloomy drama Funny Cow follows a working class female comedian as she struggles through the Northern England stand-up scene circa the 1970s. Tony Pitts’ screenplay paints a general picture of life on skid row, rather than a particular insight into the craft of comedy or what motivates joke-makers to flagellate themselves in front of sneering strangers. Instead of arguing that laughter can distract us from a cruel world, Shergold and Pitts suggest the opposite: that when life has truly gone down the drain not even having a laugh can help.
Do they really believe that? Not every film about comedians needs to be funny, but this weirdly deflating message feels (like the title and Richard Hawley’s bitterly ironic original song of the same name, performed over the closing credits) like another way for the filmmakers to push the protagonist’s head against the pavement. Are they depicting misogyny or embracing sadism? The central character doesn’t even deserve a name; she is simply known as Funny Cow. The opening sequence shows her working her material, lit cigarette and gaudy golden curtains signifying the film as a period piece.
In a subsequent scene she walks down a cruddy suburban street. A young girl comes up to her, holding a red balloon. The film switches to the girl’s point of view and jumps back in time; this is the protagonist as a child. It’s a lovely segue, although the mood quickly turns. The girl is berated by bullies, called a piece of shit before she falls into excrement. She then goes home and is confronted by her lowlife father, who, when his request of cup of tea is not immediately obeyed, takes his belt off and savagely beats her.
The film is well shot, but technique never trumps ideology and the pretty pictures are nothing compared to the stink of the subtext.
When Funny Cow meets with old comedian Lenny (Alun Armstrong) for whom the term ‘over the hill’ is too generous – implying he was once good – she explains that she would like to get into comedy. But why? The film has few answers, only mildly hinting at some degree of catharsis. Lenny, a boorish woebegone chauvinist (not the only one in this film) tells her that women simply do not make good comedians. Also, that comedy is “not about being funny, it’s about surviving”. This emerges as a core message: life is about nothing more or less than survival when you’re poor and vulnerable.
The protagonist is a tough and complex character, almost entirely thanks to Maxine Peake’s intensely nuanced and interesting performance. But her humanity is never as important as her circumstance. A flicker of hope for something better is hinted at through her romance with middle-class bookshop owner Angus (Paddy Considine). However, Shergold and Pitts are reluctant to embrace him as a positive force on her life and represent their relationship bitterly – as if doing otherwise might indulge the cliché of a knight in shining armour.
Cinematographer Tony Slater Ling’s handsomely impersonal compositions position human figures in wide, spacious images that regard everything as a potential landscape: even a lounge room or hallway. The film is well shot, but technique never trumps ideology and the pretty pictures are nothing compared to the stink of the subtext. Funny Cow’s obsessive gloom-mongering takes its toll. Other than the motivations of the filmmakers, there is nothing funny about it.
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