Adrian Shergold’s Funny Cow is a mixed bag. Just a side note – I am probably going to focus this review on a very, very small part of the film because I feel like it’s the part which has resonated in my mind since I saw the film, and not in a good way. That’s not to say that the rest of film wasn’t good – I actually found it to be a refreshing and nuanced portrayal of a woman coming to terms with her own trauma through humour. There is a just a particular moment within the film which completely altered the way I viewed it, which I will focus on more later.
Maxine Peake plays a female comedian (whose only credited name is Funny Cow). The film takes us through her life, going backwards and forwards all the way from her childhood, to a TV interview she is giving about her life. No matter how tough things get, there is already an understanding from early on that things are going to work out for her. And things do get tough…
From being elated at the premature death of her abusive father, to meeting and marrying a violent husband, to subsequently trying to curb her mother’s alcoholism – Funny Cow is a film which seeks humour in the darkest of moments, and it’s really quite good at it. Peake’s character has a complexity that is rarely seen in female characters. She spends most of the film trying to laugh her way through traumatic events, only to discover that she cannot right all of life’s wrongs with a funny joke. She plays the ‘clown’ expertly, but is also heartbreaking to watch at points – especially in the scenes with her alcoholic mother (played by Lindsey Coulson). Shergold subtly shows the cyclical nature of abuse through these two characters – both mother and daughter become moulded into ‘victims’ by the people around them. The daughters release is comedy, the mother’s release is drink, but they are two sides of the same coin.
So, what’s not to like? Well…
Before Funny Cow (I really, really wish she had an actual name) takes to the stage, she becomes enamoured with stand up comedy after watching comedian Lenny (Alun Armstrong) perform, albeit very badly, at a local venue. His act, proceeded by a low-key strip tease act, is without many laughs. His material is bad. His delivery is bad. He’s also, and this is a pretty key theme later on, pretty racist. Let’s be clear though, the racism isn’t the reason why the audience don’t laugh – he just isn’t very funny. Regardless, Funny Cow is impressed. Not with his actual jokes, but at the idea of making people laugh and getting paid to do it.
Later in the film, Funny Cow is given the opportunity to take Benny’s place at a similar show. It’s a spontaneous decision – Benny is ill and there is literally no-one else to do it. And though she has been faced with a few men telling her that women simply aren’t funny, the worst that happens during her debut stand up show is one shouty drunk guy, who is quickly reigned in by those around him. Funny Cow can hold her own, and a lot of her initial set is bouncing insults off him. The tables have turned and the humour comes from the lack of control this man now has. In any other circumstance, his heckling would be intimidating but Funny Cow is in control, and she is answering back.
After this, Funny Cow proceeds to tell a joke about an Englishman, a Pakistani man and a gay man. Only, that’s not how she describes the latter two. Clearly, I am not going to repeat this joke but the bottom line is that it’s an incredibly homophobic and racist joke, with added offensive vaguely South Asian accents. Of course, the audience in the good ol’ 1980s onscreen howled with laughter. Then I realised it wasn’t just the people onscreen who were laughing, it was the 2017 film’s audience too, all around me.
Shergold wants us to feel happy that Funny Cow’s got the laugh, that she is being accepted. We know this is the first step on her way to success, to being the person she needs to become. But why do we have to build a white woman’s success on the back of other types of discrimination? I know what the answer is already – ‘it’s just how things were back then!’. Funny Cow was written in 2017, not 1982. It doesn’t have to be that way, it’s a fictional story. Using racist and homophobic jokes to elevate the main white, straight character is at best lazy, and at worst is a sign that this film only cares about white people. It is not interested in social progression or overcoming discrimination if you are not white.
Let’s be clear too, Funny Cow is an incredibly white film. In fact, there is one character of colour who is nameless, and doesn’t actually speak. Everyone is else is white, straight and cis. This lack of POC only kicks salt into the wounds.
Of course, it is possible Shergold wanted us to read this scene as Funny Cow doing what she needed to do to get those racist old white men on side. There’s no evidence that this is the case, though. There is no discussion of it in the film at all, she simply finishes her set and her career takes off. Simply writing racism and discrimination into a film doesn’t equal combating it. It’s only with critique of those institutions within the text that a film can really be seen to understand that ‘this is how things were AND this is why it was bad’. With Funny Cow we only get the first half of that sentence.
As you may have guessed, this means I have a lot of mixed feelings about Funny Cow. Maxine Peake is incredible, to the point that the film probably would not have worked without her. Instead of just tragedy (with a few laughs) Peake connects with the audience and invites them into her world. She’s a comic genius, bringing the (at times) underwhelming script to life. I also have to sing the praises for the production design team – Funny Cow was consistently gritty and raw, mostly thanks to the attention to detail within the design. Taking us from the gritty Northern industrial landscapes, to Funny Cow’s outlandish reinvention with her peroxide hair and sporty red car is an impressive feat, and one that is pulled off impeccably.
It’s not a bad film, like I said it’s actually quite a good film. Yet, it left a horrible after taste in my mouth and as much as I attempted to understand how Shergold could justify the rampant racism and homophobia, I just couldn’t get my head around it. I still can’t.