‘She’s a funny cow, she’ll bring the whole house down’ croons Richard Hawley in a song specifically written for this Maxine Peake vehicle. Though it may be true in the film’s universe, the unnamed stand up comic (Peake) at the centre of Funny Cow hardly holds up as a shining example of comedy in a modern context. The contrast is evidence that Adrian Shergold’s film is unafraid to get grubby in its exploration of the stand up circuit in ‘80s Yorkshire, where the material that gets the biggest laughs always some kind of –ist or –phobic. However, it also shows off the muddle that the film often finds itself in, never quite sure what it wants its own audience to think of it.
Known only as Funny Cow, Peake’s character blazes from the screen. We catch non-linear snapshots of her life as she remembers it, framed by a confessional set during what is presumably the height of her fame. Funny Cow both looks and feels like a stylish biopic, and even though its subject is fictional, it rarely strays from this setup. Her childhood, as a Funny Calf (a striking debut performance from Macy Shackleton) is energetic and tinged with joy, even with a horrendously abusive father (Stephen Graham). She eventually finds herself stuck making the same mistakes as her mother (Lindsey Coulson) until her gift for making people laugh saves her.
Inspired by a dismal veteran comic (Alun Armstrong), she takes up the circuit, escaping from her pathetic, violent husband Bob (Tony Pitts, the film’s writer). All her life, Funny Cow has been getting the measure of angry men, learning to keep as much control of her life as possible in miserable circumstances, and this ability to turn their futile rage back against them works wonders at her first gig, where she wins the crowd over by demolishing a drunken heckler.
It’s a very cathartic moment, though undercut by the nasty ‘pakis and poofs’ jokes that follow, and seeing Peake finally transform into a confident winner is brilliant after the hell she’s been through. Funny Cow is the superstar showcase that Peake has always deserved – the camera is almost constantly on her, and it’s impossible to look away when she’s on screen. Despite her character’s profession, it’s not often a funny performance (this is far more a drama than a comedy), but there are still occasional big laughs, especially from Vic Reeves as a hysterically inept ventriloquist.
For all its focus on authenticity, there are a few dud notes that rip you out of the film. A bathroom suicide is both misjudged and mishandled, and Paddy Considine, who is rather doing the film a favour by appearing in it, is wasted as vapid intellectual Angus. His character feels cobbled together from a series of old clichés about the educated class. Where scenes between him and Peake should be electric (they’re two of Britain’s finest actors after all), they flounder under the weight of Angus never feeling like an actual human being.
Whenever Funny Cow threatens to turn into too much of a mess, or whenever its bitty structure might become overly frustrating, Peake is there to bring it back. It’s a spectacular piece of acting that is always compelling and never lets you see the cogs turning. If the film around her was as good, we’d be looking at one of the best of the year. Instead, Funny Cow is most valuable as a showcase for her talent, and we can only hope that she gets a similar chance to shine in the sure-to-be-brilliant Peterloo from Mike Leigh later this year.
Directed by Adrian Shergold
Written by Tony Pitts
Starring; Maxine Peake, Tony Pitts, Paddy Considine
Runtime: 102 mins