Maxine Peake leaps off the screen as the eponymous Funny Cow. This is a film which will divide, a marmite sandwich in a world of avocado on rye. Funny Cow is one of the most complete characters I’ve witnessed in a while, she is fallible and human. We don’t always like her, or understand her choices but she’s incredibly real and the joy she finds in a life that doesn’t always go her way is infectious.
Funny Cow follows the life of Peake’s unnamed protagonist as she strives to “make ‘em laugh”. Cinematographer Tony Slater Ling keeps close to Peake charting her rises and falls intimately, particularly striking moments include Funny Cow as she’s struck with stage fright, Peake’s face portraying every conceivable emotion and breaking the audience’s heart. It’s a moment that is as difficult to watch as the vicious and inevitable instances of domestic violence. Director Adrian Shergold manages to garner a sickly sense of foreboding throughout, for a film about comedians it’s really rather tragic.
Honourable mention here to Alun Armstrong’s tragic and sympathetic yet unlikeable aging comedian. He somehow manages to become something of a mentor to Funny Cow despite exclaiming that women just aren’t funny. What is most striking about this film is that it never shies away from the world it’s portraying, the North of the 1970s wasn’t the most progressive and that’s reflected in the film. Funny Cow’s first success onstage is with a slew of off colour jokes that will make audiences today recoil and cringe yet it is perfectly handled demonstrating exactly what club humour of the 1970s consisted of. It’s a complicated moment, hard to watch yet strangely uplifting as Funny Cow combats with a sexist heckler proving her worth and her right to be on that stage.
While Maxine Peake is assuredly and deservedly the star of Funny Cow, she is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, the aforementioned Alun Armstrong, Stephen Graham in a dual role as violent Father and henpecked Son as well as Lindsay Coulson’s acerbic and fragile portrayal as Funny Cow’s Mother. Paddy Considine entertains and endears as Angus, a terribly middle-class bookseller, occasionally over the top in his foppish-ness. Enjoyable cameos include Richard Hawley (who also provides the music), Vic Reeves, Diane Morgan and John Bishop.
Shergold structures the film beautifully, criss-crossing timelines as we watch the cheeky Funny Calf grow into the fearless Funny Cow. He also manages to portray the depressing realism of Funny Cow’s youth without ever falling into the trap of the kitchen sink drama, efficiently doling out details of Funny Cow’s childhood without dwelling on the bleakness.
Funny Cow frames the story with our heroine on stage speaking directly to her audience and in effect, directly to us. Peake’s character controls the narrative from the off and leads us on her journey never allowing us to feel sorry for her. She blazes her trail proudly and with glee, she “conquers them with love”. As Armstrong’s character divulges, “it’s not about being funny, love. It’s about surviving.” And survive she does.