It would surprise no one to learn that Funny Cow was one of my most anticipated films of this year, but it may surprise people to learn that I only really liked it, rather than loved it and I hope my review might explain why that's the case.
It's a film that is a real labour of love for Tony Pitts and Maxine Peake (pictured above in a particularly tense scene) who spent ten years getting it off the ground. The brutish-seeming Pitts appears on typically snarling, nasty form as Bob, the abusive husband of Peake's eponymous stand up comedian 'Funny Cow' (she's never given an actual name in the film, but is loosely based on Marti Caine), but he's also on scriptwriting duties and his storytelling signposts his real deep sensitivity and heart. Peake is, it should go without saying, utterly brilliant in the lead role. If this was America, people would have really got on to Maxine Peake's brilliance by now, and would no doubt be citing her as the new Meryl Streep or something. But we're not in America, we're in England and Maxine Peake is a rough diamond of the north. In her hands, Funny Cow is vulnerable, smart, sexy, confident, brittle, strong and funny.
The supporting cast is really special too; Alun Armstrong threatens to steal the film completely at times with a really affecting tragicomic turn as the failing and ailing stand up veteran, whilst both Christine Bottomley and Lindsey Coulson cut a pathetic, poignant figure as Funny Cow's mother, both young and old. There are some really fitting cameos from the likes of Stephen Graham and his real life wife Hannah Walters, Diane Morgan, Vic Reeves, Kevin Eldon, John Bishop and - most fittingly of all, given the '70s northern club circuit setting - real comedians from that era in the shape of Bobby Knutt and Duggie Brown. Look out for appearances from singers Richard Hawley, Corinne Bailey Rae and Kevin Rowland too.
I did have a problem with Paddy Considine though. I've long been a fan of the Midlands De Niro, but I do feel his performances have been more miss than hit in recent years. His appearance here as Angus, the intellectual who wins Funny Cow's heart and takes her away from her violent marriage to Bob, is one in which he is caught acting in every frame. I'm leaning towards saying he was miscast but maybe that's because I know that he was a late replacement for Martin Freeman who was originally slated to appear in the role. Then again, Freeman would have just been Freeman and I'm not altogether sure that would have been any better. I appreciate however that Considine is a big name to add to the starry cast and draw audiences in and, in his defence (and Freeman's too I guess given what I've just said), the character isn't as clear cut as he may initially appear on paper. To some extent Angus is just as demanding of Funny Cow and as closed to her as a person in her own right as Bob himself was. It's a tough complex role to pull off and it's just a shame that Considine doesn't manage it.
My other issue was the way the story played out. Pitts' script is a strong one with plenty of empathy and passion, a great ear for northern dialogue and the raw humour of those non-PC days, but as a storyteller he makes too many leaps that presume the audience will join the dots. The film takes a non linear approach to Funny Cow's story which holds a certain tongue in cheek manner too, as evinced by the screen captions of 'a bit later...' and the like. This is just about tolerable for anyone versed in modern cinema but what I'd have really liked to have seen more of is Funny Cow's actual ascent to fame - in reality we see her perform just one good gig, the success of which we must take into context with the glimpses of all the trappings of 1980s fame (all big hair, sports car and posh detached abode) she possesses in various flash-forwards throughout the course of the film.
Pitt's great friend Richard Hawley provides the beautiful soundtrack which easily emulates the kind of score the later kitchen sink, rags-to-riches dramas of the '60s and '70s would have*. Indeed, the evocation of times past is really impressive throughout the film - as a kid who would peep over the dimpled tables drinking lime and lemonade through a straw down the smoke-filled local Labour club, this is a world I was once all too familiar with, one that simply doesn't exist any more. The production design is just right, knowing that the working class '70s wasn't actually all gaudy colours and fads, it was actually a world of a decaying drabness that belonged from twenty years previously, where a kid holding a red balloon on a string (a nod to Pitts' favourite film, The Red Balloon) was a more common sight on any street corner than a kid on a space hopper.
Ultimately, Funny Cow is an impressive feat for both writer and actor Pitts and Peake, but as a film itself it's not quite reaching the heights it perhaps ought to have. Still, I wouldn't pay it off early for the bingo. It's an act worth seeing, maybe I just had too much expectation for it?
*And here's the beautiful title track from Hawley...