Maxine Peake gives a formidable performance as an aspiring female comedian standing up to a violent husband and the sexist Northern England club circuit. If you think that modern comedy is still lacking in gender equality, then this tough, streetwise British film shows that it’s also made giant strides since the in-your-face chauvinism of working men’s clubs in decades past. And yet, ill-treatment by men is something our eponymous heroine is grimly used to, from childhood beatings to an abusive husband (scriptwriter Tony Pitts, on terrifying form). More a film about the power of laughter and how to transform pain into humour than a straight-up comedy, Funny Cow is a fitting showcase for Peake. So often dazzling on stage and television, she’s hilarious and heart-breaking here. There’s fine support too from cast-against-type Paddy Considine as her middle-class paramour and a swooning, melancholic soundtrack by Richard Hawley.
From brutal domestic fireworks to shabby onstage entrances, cinematographer Tony Slater Ling’s focus rarely strays from Peake’s protagonist, with the steadicam following her down streets and corridors, sticking close to her side. It’s an intimate portrait of an often abrasive character who wears her inability to love as a badge of honour. Peake rises magnificently to the challenges of the role, her face flickering between a practised smile and a silent scream, ripe with contradiction. A scene in which the camera holds her gaze as she freezes on stage is particularly unforgiving – a symphony of pain and panic, sadness and rage, all playing simultaneously across Peake’s mercurial face. While the standup declares that it’s her job to “make ’em laugh”, Tony Pitts, who writes and co-stars, and director Adrian Shergold, a TV veteran whose credits include the brilliant Pierrepoint, are aiming for something more complex – to make us care for Funny Cow without feeling sorry for her.
The supporting roles are solid, from Stephen Graham’s twin turn as brutal father and cowed brother, to Lindsey Coulson’s heartbreaking performance as an increasingly lonely mum, driven to drink by the sheer coldness of life. There are some eye-catching cameos, too, from comedians such as John Bishop and Jim Moir (AKA Vic Reeves) to Dexy’s frontman Kevin Rowland, in superbly morose form. Richard Hawley also pops up as part of a nightclub duo with Corinne Bailey Rae.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall