Maxine Peake is blistering in Funny Cow

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

Two films about women this week. One, Funny Cow, is about a woman who daringly takes on men at their own game while the other, Let the Sunshine In, is dressed up in French art-house garb but basically has Juliette Binoche tirelessly running round Paris in thrall to every fella she encounters. I certainly know which I preferred. However, if you look at review aggregate sites, like Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll see Sunshine achieves the far higher score. But then most film critics are male and probably wouldn’t mind Juliette Binoche tirelessly chasing them round Paris, or anywhere else. (I have just asked a man if this is so and he has confirmed: ‘I wouldn’t mind at all. And it could be Bournemouth.’)

Funny Cow, which is set in the 1970s, is loosely based on the life of Marti Caine, the Sheffield comic who worked the northern working men’s clubs for 15 years before winning New Faces and becoming a household name. I remember her, and can’t recall being a fan especially, but can now see she was fantastically heroic. The film has its shortcomings, it pains me to say, but it also has Maxine Peake, who is a wonder, and more than holds it all together. She doesn’t so much act as burn. She burns with intelligence, burns with anger, burns with a fierce, blistering energy. I kept expecting the screen to go up — whoosh! — like a firework.

Directed by Adrian Shergold (Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman and for TV Holding On, Persuasion, Dirty Filthy Love), and scripted by actor Tony Pitts, who makes his screenwriting debut, the narrative is episodic and hops about in time. But essentially we follow Funny Cow (she is never awarded a name) from the childhood beatings inflicted by her violent father (Stephen Graham) through to her marriage to an abusive man (played by Tony Pitts) and then on to the comedy that will eventually lead to stardom. Along the way, there’s the veteran comic (Alun Armstrong) who attempts to dissuade her — ‘no job for a woman, love… women just aren’t bloody funny’ — and her affair with a middle-class bookshop owner (Paddy Considine). But don’t worry, this doesn’t go all Educating Rita on us. He takes her to see Macbeth and she’s bored shitless.

To be clear, this film, while occasionally funny — I laughed at John Bishop’s cameo — isn’t about being funny. It is about getting to somewhere no one else wants you to get to because you belong ‘at home’, and if your husband beats you, that’s just marriage. Even the jokes Funny Cow delivers as part of her set aren’t funny and may begin with: ‘A Paki, a poof, and an Englishman…’ Some have taken offence, but they are plainly nuts, as this is of its time, and it is saying something about the culture. Previously, we’d seen the Armstrong character tell racist gags and she’s playing the men at their game, remember. Plus, if we’re to understand where we are now, we need to understand where we were then.

Now on to the shortcomings, alas. Most markedly, you don’t get any sense of Funny Cow’s genesis as a comedian. She insists that she has an intrinsic ‘funny bone’ but there is scant evidence. And Shergold’s style is somewhat mannered. The film is broken up with intertitles that say ‘the first bit’ and then ‘the next bit’, which seem unnecessary, as does the business of having the adult characters meet their childhood selves. But the story is wholly worth telling. And Peake is blistering.

On to Let the Sunshine In, if we must. Directed by Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau travail), who co-wrote with Christine Angot — the fact that there are two women behind this can only be inexplicable — the film stars Juliette Binoche as Isabelle, a divorced artist who visits the various men in her life: a banker, an actor, her ex-husband, a gallerist played by the Token Black Man, then Gérard Depardieu. Some have been lovers, some are lovers and some may become lovers, and what she wants to know is: which one, if any, is the one? Yet her encounters do not let the sun in, as everyone talks in endless circles, tiresomely and pointlessly.

Meanwhile, there is no attention paid to Isabelle’s identity as a mother (she has a little girl; you only glimpse her once) or as an artist, aside from one scene where she splashes paint about like Jackson Pollock, but a crap Jackson Pollock. In short, she does not exist except in relation to men. And throughout she wears a tiny miniskirt teamed with thigh-high boots and while a point is doubtless being made, I couldn’t fathom what it was, and was mostly put in mind of Dick Whittington. I kept wanting her to slap her thigh and ask the way to London town, which may have enlivened proceedings considerably. Perhaps this is meant to be a satire of the romantic narrative but if it is, it was too subtle for me. Also, it did not burn.

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