Listen to a woman tell a joke and hear her entire life story. In short, that previous sentence sums up Funny Cow. Maxine Peake takes the title role of Funny Cow. The film charts the rise of a female comedian working the comedy circuit of working men’s clubs in Northern England through the use of flashbacks.
Funny Cow starts in the present with the audience being introduced to Funny Cow as she does her stand up routine. We are then immediately plunged back through the use of flashback to Funny Cow’s brutal childhood and how telling jokes saved her both physically and mentally, sort of. In one memorable scene, her dad beats her with a belt and all she says in return is: “What’s up Dad, you seem angry”. Her jokes are her armour and these save her time and time again. The use of flashbacks largely works although sometimes it was hard to distinguish some of the peripheral characters in certain scenes especially the childhood scenes.
Funny Cow is not a comedy, it contains comedy but it is more dramatic than comic. Jokes do feature heavily and the vast majority of the jokes are crude, sexist and racist which some may find shocking. However, this is what an accurate portrayal of a time and place is. Working men’s clubs as the name suggests were just that and these weren’t for those of a genteel disposition. The film needs those jokes and to take them away would be to sanitise the film. Funny Cow is a brutal and unfiltered look at how all comics have darkness in them that can either engulf or propel them to stardom. When Funny Cow is beaten to within an inch of her life and her husband breaks her nose she quite literally laughs through the blood and broken bones.
Maxine Peake dominates every scene she is in. The film works because she doesn’t try hard to be funny she just is funny. She gives a powerful and honest portrayal of a working class woman who doesn’t want to be defined by anyone else but herself. The film has a very good supporting cast including; Christine Bottomley as Funny Calf Mum, Tony Pitts who not only wrote the script but plays Funny Cow’s abusive husband, Bob. Paddy Considine as her resolutely middle class, bookseller lover Angus and Stephen Graham as her brother Mike.
Not only does Funny Cow show the brutal landscape of the comedy circuit it also deals with sexism as well as class issues of the 1970s and 1980s. It is funny sometimes inadvertently so and sometimes you are forced to laugh because otherwise, you would cry. What’s striking about this film is that the central character of Funny Cow isn’t shown as weak. When she leaves her abusive husband she isn’t shown a quivering wreck but as a woman ahead of her time keeping her head held high. Throughout the film, the undertone that Funny Cow is a strong Northern woman is never deviated from. It is refreshing to see a woman shown in this way and we need more like this.
Funny Cow opens in cinemas across the UK on Friday 20 April.
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