She's always been a Funny Cow (Maxine Peake), ever since she was a little girl (Macy Shackleton), so that's what everyone calls her. But she channelled this humour into a career, which not many people can do, and in the nineteen-seventies became a successful stand-up comedienne in Northern England, performing an act that looks back on her trials and tribulations and all the troubles she has suffered to get here. As long as she has her sense of humour, she believes she can manage whatever life throws at her, and that includes a physically abusive father (Stephen Graham), a physically abusive husband (Tony Pitts), and an alcoholic mother (Christine Bottomley and Lindsay Coulson).
There was a fashion in the twenty-tens to paint the seventies as a hellish morass of sexism, racism, homophobia, every prejudice you could conceive of, and in its manner Funny Cow was part of that cultural movement. However, where it was more winning than a simple set of tut-tutting scenes of those offensive attitudes, screenwriter (and star) Tony Pitts was interested in what made such behaviour propagate: why was it encouraged? What did you do if you were on the receiving end? The unexplored era where the right-on alternative comedy arrived, the eighties, nevertheless pressed hard on the characters, for we were invited to take this story with the knowledge of what happened next.
Therefore as a viewer there was something asked of you, not simply to sit there passively and consume some rose-tinted heritage drama, but think on what has changed since then and what has changed. Furthermore, you were invited to bring something of yourself and your own values to the table, with the impression the richer your inner life the more you would get out of this, hence there was a degree of flattery of the audience in accepting you would understand what they were getting at. Although the stand-up was a major part of the plot, it didn't make up the majority of the running time, so we were aware that Funny Cow (who doesn't get a name otherwise) was a product of her time.
But also a victim of that time who uses that victimhood against her attackers to defuse it: the simple act of laughing at a bully may enrage them more than meekly rolling over and letting them have their way, but it is also a method of gaining power from what often amounts to a powerless relationship. Needless to say, Peake was fantastic in this role, without a hint of embarrassment in her character's routines that could have undercut the attention to detail, and in the domestic sequences her awareness that she was not like everyone else and it was pointless to try and fit in with their narrow-minded ways were put across with bluntness, yet a perception in how the misfit can tell you more about a society than someone who has slotted into that life with as much acquiescence as possible.
We may not admire the material Funny Cow comes out with, although Pitts gave her a good few legitimately amusing lines, but she was holding up a mirror to all those who had ever kicked her to the ground, sometimes literally, and daring them to laugh, which many of them do wholly unaware that they are the targets of the humour. Or if not humour, insight. Funny Cow's acceptance that she will never fit in gives rise to a curious calm, a contentment that she has found her place in life and it is not to go along with the herd, so to speak, so when she strikes up a relationship away from her horrendous husband with bookshop owner Paddy Considine, she can deal with the fact that while she appreciates he loves her, she can never love him back after all she's been through, seeing the worst in people, and can never aspire to his high-falutin' lifestyle anyway: it's simply not who she is. Although the film did not make huge waves, it was a piece that stuck in the minds off all who saw it, like it or not, Peake especially haunting in spite of her ribaldry. A strange, deeply felt work of uncompromising quality. Music by Richard Hawley (in addition, one of the celebrity cameos).
[Entertainment One's DVD has a featurette, deleted scenes and the 2012 try-out short for the film as extras.]