”Life. It’s always been too much, or not enough.’
When writing a review a critic will often use the term ‘shine’ to describe an actor’s performance. ‘He/she shines in the role…’ we may say. For the most part it’s an apt word. But, when describing Maxine Peake’s performance, ‘shine’ doesn’t work. It’s simply not accurate. She dazzles. She radiates. She burns. She is, quite simply, extraordinary. Her performance is moving and hilarious, rewarding yet devastating. It feels truly heartfelt.
She plays the eponymous Funny Cow (no other name is given for her during the film), a woman who describes herself as having a funny bone instead of a back bone. It’s the 1970s and the comedy circuit is far from welcoming when it comes to female comedians. In fact, there’s very little in Funny Cow’s life that is welcoming to her – but she’s going to use the raw material from her life experiences to make them laugh. She does that with ease, once she works up the confidence to get onto the stage and stay on it. She makes us laugh too. She, and some of her life moments, will make us cry too.
A lot has been said about the fine line between tragedy and comedy – some of our funniest souls have been the most troubled. It shouldn’t be that big a surprise as those who know true sadness will do all they can to ensure those around them don’t feel the same; they strive to make us smile when they feel unable to. The character of Funny Cow is an excellent example of this. We witness her difficult childhood (nice touch – the actress playing her as a child is credited as ‘Funny Calf’), her violent father (Stephen Graham) & alcoholic mother (Christine Bottomley). Then, in a case of life repeating itself, she marries violent and controlling Bob (Tony Pitts). And her bourgeoise lover (Paddy Considine) may not be the respite he first appears to be.
What’s refreshing about the film is how it avoids the expecting chronological narrative – it doesn’t start with her as a child and finish with her finally having made it as a comedian. The film flits between different time periods and different moments in her life. It’s unapologetic in how it cuts between these, there’s no graceful transition or fade into flashbacks. That really wouldn’t work with the tone nor topic of the film. Like Funny Cow herself its bold and slightly abrasive. It’s also more reflective of life as a whole. No man or woman is shaped by their life experiences in chronological order, we may have a delayed response to some or the true impact of one may not be revealed into something subsequent occurs.
Tony Pitts screenplay seems to have this concept at it’s very heart, letting the life of Funny Cow reveal itself to the viewer in a naturalistic manner. From the dialogue to the experiences, they all seem founded in the real. This truly feels like a real life we are baring witness to. This is enhanced by the excellent direction and cinematography. The spectrum of greys and browns we now associate with this time period are fully utilised. The camera follows but never intrudes.
Except during the few brief moments when Peake’s eyes lock with the camera. It’s as if she knows we are there, watching. We can’t help her and she probably wouldn’t want us to. Instead she looks at us, knowing that we’re implicit in her life and that, all too soon, we’re also leave her. There’s no anger at this, just acceptance.
She, like all of us, is simply doing what she can.
Funny Cow is in UK cinemas from April 20th.