'Funny Cow': Film Review | London 2017

More funny-peculiar than funny ha-ha.

Maxine Peake stars as a working-class woman who longs to be a stand-up comedian in this British comedy-drama, co-starring Paddy Considine and Stephen Graham.

One of those intriguing but raggedy films that ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its promising parts, British comedy-drama Funny Cow stars Maxine Peake (The Theory of Everything) as an irrepressible working-class lass finding her feet as a stand-up comic in mid-century Northern England.

Working off a script by actor Tony Pitts, who also plays the protagonist’s abusive husband, veteran TV director Adrian Shergold (Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman) boldly blends expressionist flourishes (actors playing multiple roles, stylized framing) with hard-grit realism. Peake is flinty and charismatic in the lead, and sharp support is provided by Paddy Considine, Stephen Graham and Alun Armstrong, among others. For some, the fundamental flaw will be that, despite the title, the comic material (mostly culled from vintage gags of the period) the characters perform onstage sounds painfully unamusing to contemporary ears. Possibly too avant garde to appeal to the generation and demographic the film represents, and too coarse for the snowflake sensibilities of art house viewers elsewhere, Funny Cow isn’t likely to secure many gigs beyond festivals and the specialist circuit.

Arguably, the most awkward of the film’s many mannered devices is the refusal to give the protagonist a proper name. Instead, even in the opening scene where she’s introduced by an emcee as she takes the stage, she’s called simply “Funny Cow.” As with “queer," it would seem the heroine has seemingly taken this backhanded compliment/insult and turned it into an identity of sorts.

In any case, after her introduction, the grown version of Funny Cow (Peake) comes back to the unnamed Yorkshire town where she grew up (Sheffield is cited as one of the locations used) and literally meets herself as a roughly 9- or 10-year-old child (Macy Shackleton from The Selfish Giant, and clearly a kid going places).

Little “Funny Calf” (so named in the end credits, as opposed to “Young Funny Cow," the young adult version played by Hebe Beardsall) reveals herself to be a cheeky scamp. She’s able to withstand bullying from neighborhood kids and beatings from her terrifyingly violent father (Stephen Graham) alike, countering attacks with sassy retorts and withering “Is that the best you can do?” insouciance. It’s this resilience, a refusal to be beaten down, that propels her to success while her mother (Christine Bottomley as a young woman, Lindsey Coulson as the older version) succumbs to alcoholism and her brother Mike (first Ashton Steele, then Graham again) retreats into suburban conformity.

Having reached voting age, Funny Cow soon marries Bob (first Tom Gibbons, and later screenwriter Pitts) and takes delight in a place of her own, a set awash in vintage wallpaper in shades of beige and despair. It’s not long before Bob starts beating her, just like dear old dad. Eventually, she leaves him for bookstore owner Angus (Considine, rocking the '70s sideburns and turtlenecks), but that doesn’t offer much fulfillment either. It’s only when she finally musters enough confidence to get on stage and tell jokes that she subsequently blossoms, having been inspired and mildly encouraged by washed up stand-up Lenny (the always reliably glum Alun Armstrong).

Peake, who is also one of the film’s executive producers, has spoken to the press about how one of the inspirations for the film was Marti Caine, a flame-haired variety star who rose to fame in the '60s and whose biography bears much similarity to the story here. For whatever reason, the filmmakers have chosen to make a work of fiction instead of a bio-doc, but there’s a sense that too many compromises and cobbled-together solutions have resulted in a work that’s neither one thing nor another.

The Northern working men’s clubs, with their tawdry glittery curtains and murkily patterned carpets awash in cheap beer, are lovingly recreated, and the filmmakers clearly have affection for the spirit and brio of this milieu. That respect may explain why they’ve chosen to be faithful to the salty, often misogynistic and racist humor that was pervasive in the venues. But from a modern viewer’s point of view, it somewhat reduces the rooting interest even for Funny Cow, who wants nothing more than to offer her own version of this tired, insult-based material.

Nevertheless, there are considerable pleasures on offer here, starting with Peake’s focused, intense performance. Making the most of what’s obviously a limited budget, production designer Candida Otton and costume designer John Krausa maximize their resources with designs just a little bit off-kilter, often offering dark, ominous interiors in which Funny Cow’s bright outfits, usually in shades of ruby red, stand out. Cult Brit musician Richard Hawley contributes a striking original soundtrack that includes an assortment of background accompaniment and shimmering '70s pastiches. He also plays a minor character who gets to sing a lovely duet with Corinne Bailey Rae that is one of the film’s highlights — along with the nimbly edited climax where Funny Cow finally reveals her act onstage, a savory mix of self-deprecating barbs and aggressive fat-shaming aimed at a loathsome heckler.  

Production companies: A Pow Films, Moviehouse Entertainment presentation in association with Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Lipsync of a Laughing Girl production, produced in association with Gizmo Films, Vexed Pixie
Cast: Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine, Stephen Graham, Tony Pitts, Alun Armstrong, Kevin Eldon, Christine Bottomley, Lindsey Coulson, Macy Shackleton, Hebe Beardsall, Kevin Rowland, Richard Hawley, Corinne Bailey Rae
Director: Adrian Shergold
Screenwriter: Tony Pitts
Producers: Kevin Proctor, Mark Vennis
Executive producers: Maxine Peake, Peter Gerard Dunphy, Charlotte Arden, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden, Tony Pitts, Gary Phillips
Director of photography: Tony Later Ling
Production designer: Candida Otton
Costume designer: John Krausa
Editor: Tania Reddin
Music: Richard Hawley
Music supervisor: Iain Cooke
Casting: Michelle Smith
Venue: BFI London Film Festival

Sales: Moviehouse

103 minutes