Starring: Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine, Tony Pitts
Director: Adrian Shergold
Running Time: 102 mins
Funny Cow is a British film about a comedian who struggles through a troubled life as she begins to build up her career on the comedy circuit across the working men’s clubs of Northern England.
A salt-of-the-earth drama in every sense of the word, Funny Cow provides deeply insightful and hard-hitting drama in staggeringly powerful fashion. Blending devastatingly bleak drama with a dark but pitch-perfect sense of humour and a heart of gold, the film delivers a breathtaking tale of self-discovery, alongside a scathing indictment of abuse, sexism, classism and the English stiff upper lip that hits incredibly close to home.
With so much insight delivered in such staggeringly powerful fashion, there’s little doubt that Funny Cow isn’t just one of the best British films in recent years, but has all the ingredients to go ahead into the future and become one of the defining British films of all time.
On the one hand, its devastatingly bleak look at life in poverty and an abusive household is highly reminiscent of Ken Loach’s era-defining Kes, but Funny Cow broadens the perspective on social issues so pervasive in English society even further.
The film at first looks at the struggles of a woman growing up almost entirely surrounded by abusive and negative influences, from her violent father and husband, the children around her in youth, and even to her downtrodden mother.
In that, we get a stunning insight into the trials of growing up in an abusive and unhealthy environment and the long-term social and mental consequences that continue to play out through the whole story.
Because despite her abusive upbringing, ‘Funny Cow’ pushes ahead through life trying to push away her troubles or ignore them, but in reality just letting them take over her life entirely. That leads to her descent down the same path as all those before her, suffering through an awful life with no prospects and an abusive husband, but just sitting there and taking it, because that what she feels like she deserves and is destined to live like.
And that’s where the real crux of the film comes in, as it hammers home a powerfully insightful, thought-provoking and hard-hitting attack on the English culture of the so-called ‘stiff upper lip’ – ignoring troubles and pretending to brush them aside while burying the real emotional consequences.
As such a common feature of British life for so many people both in the film’s time period (the 1970s) and the modern day, the way that Funny Cow opens up so many difficult wounds by posing challenging and forthright questions is astonishing, getting to the bottom of such a major characteristic of British society like no other film before it.
But it’s not an attack on those who live by the stiff upper lip, but more of an exposé on the real damage the philosophy can have, both on a personal level as well as those around you, as we see from the devastating but fascinating development of our main character.
And that’s where Funny Cow is even more insightful and defining of British culture than the likes of Kes. Its story opens up challenging and powerful discussions about poverty, classism, sexism and more, but it’s the way that it takes on such a significant part of the country’s society (and wins) that really makes it such an outstanding watch.
But even beyond its stunning dramatic insight, Funny Cow impresses on yet another level, somehow managing to provide genuinely heartfelt emotion and funny humour right alongside such a bleak and hard-hitting story.
As devastating as the film is at times, it always has a joke up its sleeve to briefly lighten the mood, and more importantly to give our main character a glimmer of hope amidst the spectre of bleakness.
In that, the film never feels like a purely hopeless, bleak portrayal of society, but rather a hopeful and heartfelt tale of self-discovery that pits humour and heart against the often overwhelmingly devastating nature of reality, delivering big laughs from Funny Cow’s genuinely hilarious comedy sets to a deeply dark but relatable satire on those societal issues the film opens up so brilliantly.
Juggling incredible tonal shifts that see the film abruptly change from bleak devastation to big, gut-busting laughs, director Adrian Shergold does a stunning job to keep it all together, while lead actress Maxine Peake gives an exceptional and powerfully understated performance that effortlessly delivers both immense charisma and comedic energy and staggering dramatic depth.
And finally, that use of humour is just the icing on the cake of the film’s indictment of the stiff upper lip culture. Using laughs and comedy to lighten the mood and temporarily brush away the troubles that unfold here, it makes you as the viewer understand entirely just what it’s like to be a part of that culture, and connect even more with its indictment of why it can be so damaging.
Overall, Funny Cow is an exceptional film from beginning to end. A defining film of British culture with its salt-of-the-earth style and powerful insight into so many modern societal issues, it hits so close to home with every beat, offering up challenging, devastating and thought-provoking drama throughout.
Couple that with a unique and ingenious use of humour that both furthers its core messages and necessarily lightens the mood at times, and you have a film that perfectly and devastatingly encapsulates some of the harsher realities of British life. And that’s why I’m giving Funny Cow an 8.7.