The pre-credit intro begins in traditional style, “Ladies and gentlemen, a big hand for …..” and we see a woman, middle aged, spangled red dress, on a stage, captured from behind in a smoky spot. A comedian it appears but when we come close-up, her personal stream-of-consciousness, Lenny Bruce-ish shtick is as sad and lost as her lowered gaze and twinkleless eyes . So begins a very unconventional film. Gently tossing back and forward, FUNNY COW will give some insights into this woman’s life and leave other events unspoken. Ignored or explored, her loves and conflicts and stand-up career will swirl around several superbly realised evocations of period to showcase a gutzy misfit who has no choice but to succeed.
FUNNY COW began in a conversation between actor Maxine Peake and writer Tony Pitts when they were both working on the TV series RED RIDING 1980. They found they shared an interest in the Working Men’s Clubs of northern England and the comedy circuit around them. As created by Pitts, the eponymous Funny Cow will find a place here with a foul mouth and a working class sensibility, racism, homophobia and all. But that is just part of the story.
Funny Calf is nurtured in the unremitting tones of stone and slate, of violence, neglect and alcoholism. As she negotiates the bully pack in her red best coat she is pulled from the background and never blends in. Her penchant for red will fade as her life greys into marriage, domesticity and generational abuses repeated. And resurface with an assertion of will that is most often merely glimpsed, tantalising obscure, or detailed in blood but never in tears. Maxine Peake is astonishing as she brings to life this woman who is honest enough to know that her truth is hidden too deep to share.
Peake is at once empathetic and vulnerable, yet hard edged and brittle. Her portrayal of a woman who finds the oddest things funny and who uses “no” as challenge is tempered with an exuberant silliness and her mother’s impulsivity. She ages effortlessly and exudes an interior world that should she share, might explain some of the mysteries of Funny Cow’s life. There is some kind of tragedy here and much is unexplained as the narrative weaves eras and settings through title cards like ‘The First Bit’ and ‘The Next Bit’ and ‘Almost the Last Bit’ and in the way that Funny Cow will meet and share with Funny Calf.
This non-linear narrative is peopled with other striking characterisations. Alun Armstrong is the washed up stand-up circuit comic who will appear in and out of Silly Cow’s ambitions. Armstrong brings beautifully to the screen a man who was never quite good enough and the end of his story is incredibly moving. Also bringing the pathos of a life only just lived is the contrast between vivaciously spontaneous Christine Bottomley as Funny Calf’s mum and beaten and birdlike Lindsey Coulson as older Funny Cow’s mum. Heart wrenching in a film that doesn’t bog down in the inevitabilities of class or gender in a time well past.
While with a bang and whimper, Funny Cow’s relationships end, the Director Adrian Shergold has subtly explored the class divide through her choices and expounded on the theme in the technical aspects of the film. ‘Mule Train’ giving way to ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’ but also in the artistic references to ‘Le Ballon Rouge’. The costumes and the mise en scène through several periods is evocative and scrupulously conjured, even to Australian rememberings. Shadow boxes on the wall and pale nail polish and green eyeshadow and you just know that is a Tia Maria and Milk in her glass.
FUNNY COW’s story concludes with the vaguely satisfying circularity of returning near where we first encountered her. Alone in a studio with camera and mic, rambling about her history with the aging face perfectly made up, the red lipstick and nails contrasting with the sheer black of her blouse. The sad eyes still looking downwards to shield the spirit.