Comedy and trauma in Nanette and Funny Cow

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Funny Cow (MA). Director: Adrian Shergold. Starring: Maxine Peake, Stephen Graham, Paddy Considine, Tony Pitts, Alun Armstrong. 102 minutes

Maxine Peake in Funny CowPlenty has already been said about Tasmanian comic Hannah Gadsby's brilliant and devastating Netflix special Nanette. I won't dwell on it overly much here, other than to say that it is, among other things, an elegant critique of comedy as an imperfect tool for processing and transcending trauma. Gadsby, a lesbian who grew up in Tasmania at a time when anti-gay prejudice was enshrined in law, has made a career out of joking about the bigotry she has experienced in her life. But jokes are not the cure, she concludes by the end of Nanette; stories are.

In this regard it ought to be a strength of Funny Cow that it is more concerned with the life story of its titular character (Peake) than with the jokes that arise from it. She is an aspiring comedian (named only as Funny Cow in the credits) in 1970s northern England. Though we know from glimpses of her future she attains a level of success, the film gives scarce attention to her development of her craft, or her efforts to forge a career, other than to the extent that they provide an escape from socioeconomic and gendered oppression, towards independence.

In fact, for a film about a comedian, Funny Cow is surprisingly dour. She was raised by an abusive father, and an alcoholic mother who failed to protect her. Later she marries a man, Bob (Pitts), who turns out to be no less a brute than her father. From a young age Funny Cow is shown to use humour to deflect trauma. When, as a child, local bullies push her into a pile of dog turds, she picks up said turds and chases them down the street. After enduring a beating from her father, she asks mildly, 'Are you angry? You seem angry.' She later uses the same line on Bob.

The film doesn't shy from the violence she suffers at the hands of these men, from the markers of socioeconomic hardship in her life, or from the various ways in which she, as a woman, is oppressed both privately and publicly. But nor does it follow through in any meaningful way the idea of comedy-as-coping, or critique this the way Gadsby does. (To be fair, Funny Cow is an entirely different medium and context, but both concern themselves with the twinned themes of comedy and trauma, and the strengths of the latter illuminate the weaknesses of the former.) 

It is also is a strangely arty film, in a way that jars with the grim backdrop. With its sharply disjointed time sequences, we see versions of Funny Cow at different ages occasionally cross paths; Shergold as director has Peake peer down the barrel of the camera to underline dramatic moments; Graham plays both Funny Cow's father and, later, inexplicably and disorientingly, her adult brother. Peake's performance is an appealing mixture of toughness and tenderness, and we admire her; but such cinematic embellishments for their own sake too often take us out of her story.

So, too, does the film's dated jokes about minorities. We hear these from veteran comic Lenny (Armstrong), for whom Funny Cow develops a misplaced fondness, given that the first time she meets him he tells her she should become a stripper instead of a comic. (Lenny is given his own tragic subplot, but there is little in the character to earn our sympathy.) Worse, we hear them from Funny Cow herself; it may be a marker of period authenticity to hear jokes about 'poofs and Pakis', but they are disruptive to a modern film purporting to be about overcoming prejudice.

 

"She finds strength in the knowledge that she is not obliged to protect fragile middle-class male egos; a point that resonates today when public conversations about privilege are more potent and nuanced than ever."

 

The film shows more self-awareness in its portrayal of her relationship with Angus (Considine), a bourgeois bookshop owner to whom she flees after escaping Bob. He is kind but condescending, growing petulant that she doesn't enjoy arthouse films and Shakespeare, and more so when she tells him she never wants to have children, even with him ('We'll see,' he sulks). She finds strength in the knowledge that she is not obliged to protect fragile middle-class male egos; a point that resonates today when public conversations about privilege are more potent and nuanced than ever.

The film rarely achieves such nuance. Its ramshackle structure, diffuse focus and tendency to undermine itself thematically and artistically leave us with something that adds up to less than its parts. Nanette by contrast is impeccably structured, utterly on point, and powerfully performed by Gadsby with a combination of comedic skill, self-awareness and raw emotional authenticity. If you are interested in the intersection between comedy and trauma and what it has to say about how we relate to each other as human beings, skip Funny Cow and watch Nanette.

  

  

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Funny Cow, Maxine Peake, Stephen Graham, Paddy Considine, Nanette, Hannah Gadsby

 

 

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Existing comments

As a rule I prefer British comedy to Australian comedy. "Fawlty Towers" mixture of visual and verbal comedy makes me laugh no matter how many times I watch. However, I have been an admirer of Hannah Gadsby since watching her wonderful appearances on Adam Hills' show. So, I'll have a look on Netflix.
Pam | 02 August 2018


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