Maxine Peake captivates in a film that takes a serious look at being funny
Making 'em laugh gets a surprisingly sombre overhaul in Funny Cow, at its best a decent platform for fearless leading lady Maxine Peake. Ostensibly charting the rise to fame of a female stand-up in the 70s and 80s, it's a domestically focused drama with a relatively minor interest in the gags or comedy scene itself. Instead it foregrounds the pain and suffering behind its protagonist's quick wit and brass neck.
Only ever referred to by her stage name, the film follows the eponymous northerner from the childhood beatings inflicted by her father (Stephen Graham), through her similarly violent marriage, to her first crack at comedy – framed by her rather opaquely addressed stardom. Actor Tony Pitts makes his film screenwriting debut and features as Funny Cow's abusive husband Bob – wound tight and always on the verge of exploding. Pitts' dialogue is poetic in places but a touch theatrical and rarely cuts to the heart of the characters. Family dynamics feel underexplored; a difficult relationship with her brother (Graham again) is reduced to a cheeky punchline in the shape of a flashed arse.
Nevertheless, there's an elegance to the direction from TV veteran Adrian Shergold, enhanced by the melancholic score (from Richard Hawley no less, who pops up for a stirring duet with Corinne Bailey Rae). The film is beautifully shot by Tony Slater Ling, while Peake dazzles in a series of flamboyant red numbers that provide a link to the shameless spirit of her childhood, before life knocked the stuffing out of her.
Funny Cow doesn't shy away from the sometimes grim reality of working men's clubs in the 1970s, where racist humour goes down a storm and female entertainers fall into two categories: strippers or singers. Its heroine wears her humour like a shield but her sadness is ever apparent and the fickleness and cruelty of the comedy circuit is epitomised by the experiences of Alun Armstrong's curmudgeonly Lenny, who becomes Funny Cow's reluctant mentor.
Unfolding as a series of nonsequential snapshots, the constant back and forth frustrates the flow and – while cameos from Vic Reeves, John Bishop, Diane Morgan and Kevin Eldon add colour – the supporting cast are largely wasted. Like Funny Cow herself, the film possesses enough swagger to paper over at least some of the cracks and, thanks to the stirring soundtrack and equally affecting central performance, benefits from a generous helping of northern soul.
Selected release from Fri 20 Apr.