The damp misery of England’s summer-less north isn’t the first place you’d look for a few laughs. But that’s where this tale about an aspiring standup comedian is set. However, its illustration of domestic woe might catch you off guard as this story is more a survival tale than a celebration of feel-good laughs—for a movie about a standup comedian, it’s relentlessly glum.
Maxine Peake (The Theory of Everything), plays the titular role of Funny Cow (we never discover her real name) as the film traces her life story from childhood giggler to fully-fledged standup comedian. Brought up at the hands of an alcoholic mother and a violent dad, she copes with the horrors of her upbringing the best way she knows how—by defiantly laughing in the face of her abusers. As with her belligerently cheeky disposition, this film is an exercise in resilience and offers very little in the way of the comic relief.
That’s not to say it is entirely bereft of lighter moments. Her affair with the ironically named Angus (Paddy Considine) applies a dry-witted eloquence to proceedings. His response to her backstory — “Why is it all the beautiful people are fucked up and all the wankers bestride the earth untouched” — so eloquently summarises most of the film’s broken characters. But despite offering some light at the end of the tunnel, even Angus eventually succumbs to the film’s oppressive mood.
Oh, and fair warning, Funny Cow’s standup routine, although historically authentic to the working men’s clubs of the time, provides the kind of questionable racism that might make some viewers uncomfortable.
But these quibbles aside, the film still has plenty to admire. Beautifully shot in all its bleak squalor, the cleverly considered narrative structure quite brilliantly reveals her life through fractured flashbacks. Some laser guided fourth-wall breaking, coupled with Peake’s superb performance, hammers home some of the film’s more salient themes. And if you can get through its depressing demeanour, Funny Cow does deliver a powerfully told tale of domestic survival that tugs on the heart-strings.