Funny Cow (15)
Adrian Shergold, 103 mins, starring: Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine, Tony Pitts, Alun Armstrong, Stephen Graham, Kevin Eldon, Vic Reeves, John Bishop
Funny Cow is one of the best British features of the year so far: an abrasive, tender and continually surprising affair whose comic moments sit next to scenes of irredeemable bleakness. The film evokes an era when comedy wasn’t touched in the slightest by political correctness. Tony Pitts’ screenplay is full of references to death and suicide; to comedians dying on stage and sometimes in real life too.
Set in northern England in the 1970s and 1980s, the film the story of “Funny Cow” (Maxine Peake), as she is nicknamed, now a successful comedienne but who started in the working men’s clubs.
In a bravura performance, Peake plays “Funny Cow” as if she is a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Bernard Manning, with a bit of Lenny Bruce thrown in for good measure. (In interviews, Peake has also talked of 1970s singer/performer Marti Caine as one of the main inspirations for the character.)
The portrayal of her childhood is as brutal as anything found in Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives. Her father (Stephen Graham) is a bullying patriarch who’ll belt her if she answers back. The other kids mock her because she seems so sure of herself. Played as a child by Macy Shackleton, she already knows how to answer back and to turn the bullies’ taunts against themselves.
We’re in a world of muddy back alleys and cramped tenement houses where even an outside bath is considered a luxury. Colours are desaturated. In one scene that could come straight out of a Terence Davies movie, we see family members standing in their front room with the open cask coffin of the father beside them.
As a young woman (played by Hebe Beardsall), the would-be comedienne is full of energy and mischief. Her boyfriend Bob seems to share her lust for life but when they marry, everything changes. Her world becomes very constricted. Her self-esteem evaporates.
The film’s view of masculinity is despairing. On the one hand, there are the beer quaffing, openly violent men like Funny Cow’s father or husband. Then, there is sophisticated and affluent bookshop owner, Angus (Paddy Considine), who becomes her lover.
He appreciates art and fine wine; wears dark polar necks; lives in a beautiful house full of designer furniture; listens to classical music and takes her to Shakespeare plays. Angus is seemingly gentle and considerate but turns out to be an inveterate snob. He makes it very clear to her that she doesn’t possess his level of cultural capital. She isn’t educated enough to join in his world.
“Flaunt your fanny for them but don’t try to make them laugh,” is the advice given to the would-be comedienne by the crumpled old funnyman, Lenny (played in wonderfully lugubrious fashion Alun Armstrong.) He’s a seedy and despairing figure who drinks too much and whose confidence is shot. She admires his craft, though.
In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, we see a middle-aged stripper being wildly applauded by a club audience which then reacts with total indifference when Lenny comes on stage. The punters are too busy buying beers to pay attention to him. They’ve heard his jokes before.
Even more bizarre is the scene in which the comedienne auditions for a “Search For A Star” talent show alongside midgets, ventriloquists and Elvis impersonators with dancing dogs. (It’s here we have cameos from comedians John Bishop and Vic Reeves.) The humour comes from the very deadpan way in which the scene is filmed and from the performers’ chronic lack of ability.
Showbusiness as depicted here isn’t remotely glamorous. The would-be comedienne uses the survival skills she has honed with her abusive father and husband to deal with hecklers. Nothing about her is meek or gentle. She swears and tells racist, homophobic jokes. The shock of her first stage performance is precisely that she is so outspoken. Audiences are delighted to hear her talking back in just as coarse and aggressive a way as any male comedian of the period.
The film has the same reckless energy as the best of the northern-set ‘kitchen sink’ dramas made by directors like Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz in the early 1960s. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” was the motto of Albert Finney’s young factory worker in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. Peake’s comedienne has a similar defiance.
Not everything works.The storyline is choppy and episodic, leaping randomly back and forth in time. The characterisation of the alcoholic mother, drinking her life away, veers close to cliché. It’s disconcerting to see Stephen Graham with Al Capone-levels of aggression as the father one moment and then playing Funny Cow’s mild-mannered brother the next.
Certain characters’ back stories are skimmed over. (We never learn why the sister-in-law has such a grudge against Funny Cow.) However, director Adrian Shergold sensibly organises the film around Peake, who is superb.
For all the grimness of the settings, this is an old-fashioned ‘star is born’-style story at heart. Peake puts across the jokes, even the crudest ones, with complete conviction. She plays Funny Cow as a character with an uncanny ability to roll with the punches. By the end of the film, we’re not sure whether she has led a happy or a tragic life. What is clear is that like any other diva, she has no regrets whatsoever.
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Society (12A)
Mike Newell, 124 mins, starring: Lily James, Jessica Brown Findlay, Michiel Huisman, Matthew Goode, Katherine Parkinson, Penelope Wilton
As titles go, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society is a mouthful. It also tells us very little. Is this going to be a movie about cooking, reading, or tourist opportunities in the Channel Islands?
The film, based on the novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, turns out to deal with the islanders’ experiences under Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Don’t expect a brooding drama full of scenes of Gestapo officers torturing the locals. This is a jaunty and good-natured affair, buoyed by a very likeable performance from Lily James.
The tone is set early on when the postmaster Eben (Tom Courtenay) throws up violently up on a Nazi officer’s shoes. He is one of a group of revellers who’ve just had an illicit feast on the island, having roasted a pig which they kept hidden away from the Germans. They’re drunk on home made gin but it’s almost certainly the potato peel pie that caused Eben’s guts to churn.
While the islanders have been suffering under German occupation, over in war-torn London, beautiful young writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) has been enjoying her first successes as an author, writing under the pseudonym, Izzy Bickerstaff When the war ends, her publisher (Matthew Goode) wants her to tour Britain to publicise her book but Juliet is lured to Guernsey instead.
Director Mike Newell (whose credits range from Four Weddings And A Funeral to Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire) is a meticulous craftsman. His films are invariably very carefully constructed affairs. Here, he works his way through a complex plot, full of flash backs, flash forwards and sudden revelations, in typically elegant fashion. What he can’t overcome, though, is the incongruous whimsicality at the heart of the story.
We may be in wartime and then austerity-era Britain but the filmmakers don’t skimp on the glamour. Lily James looks very svelte and stylish in a Greer Garson-like way, with her dainty hats, silk blouses and diamond earrings. Her GI fiancé (Glen Powell) sends her roses on a daily basis.
Even the bombed-out London streets look strangely picturesque. The film contains references to death camps. Many of the main characters lose loved ones and endure traumatic experiences but the film somehow still maintains its gentle comic tone throughout.
Initially as a ruse to keep the Nazis off their back, and then because they have so little else to do, a group of the islanders have formed their own literary society. The moving force behind the society is the beautiful and rebellious Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay.)
Through her, handsome pig farmer Dawsey (Michael Huisman), local psychic and bootlegger Isola (Katherine Parkinson), postmaster Eben and old matriarch Amelia (Penelope Wilton), have come together, They regard books and authors with veneration. The literary society continues, even after the war has ended.
When Juliet arrives from London, she is regarded with awe simply because she is the author of a book about Anne Bronte. When the book lovers discover she is planning an article about them, their attitude changes. They’re harbouring some painful secrets which they don’t want to share.
As in Ealing comedies, the community is far stronger than any individual. The mildly eccentric members of the literary society remain remarkably loyal to one another. The war, meanwhile, is presented as an inconvenience. The members of the Potato Peel society are so busy discussing Bronte and Charles Lamb’s Shakespeare stories that they manage to keep the outside world at bay.
From the very first time Juliet claps eyes on Dawsey, their mutual attraction is obvious. The film is as much about their burgeoning love affair, and the hurdles they have to overcome to be together, as it is about wartime lies and secrets.
Some of the sentimentality is on the cloying side. We see a blond haired kid running amok. This is Elizabeth’s doe-eyed daughter. Elizabeth has “left” the island in mysterious circumstances. “This is me and my mummy. She loves me very much but she can’t be here,” the child shows Juliet a picture of herself in one of the film’s most mawkish scenes.
The local busybodies refer darkly to the island being littered with “half German bastards.” In a flashback, we see a violent dust-up in the pub involving an informer. Some of the islanders are shown protesting when the Nazis march through town. Juliet’s malicious landlady is always spying on her.
The story that Juliet’s investigations is uncovering is dark and disturbing. The style of the film, though, remains relentlessly upbeat. Its cheerfulness is epitomised by Lily James’ bright and breezy Juliet, who keeps on smiling through even the most traumatic events. The result is a film that, while perfectly enjoyable on its own terms, becomes every bit as cosy, nostalgic and superficial as the title suggests it is going to be.
Let The Sunshine In (15)
Claire Denis, 95 mins, starring: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko
To describe Claire Denis’ Let The Sunshine In as a romantic comedy doesn’t do it justice. In its sophistication (and pretentiousness), it is light years away from Bridget Jones or Notting Hill. Apparently inspired by Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments this is the type of film that a British director would never make – or would make in an entirely different way.
Juliette Binoche stars as Isabelle, the middle-aged Parisienne artist with an extraordinarily complicated love life. The very first scenes of the film show her having sex with one of her lovers, a paunchy, middle-aged man (who turns out to be married.) Another of her lovers is a young actor who tells her that he deeply regrets their liaison.
Isabelle doesn’t just have affairs. She talks about them endlessly, meditating on the meaning of love. We see her from time to time discussing her affairs with a suitor she meets outside her local fishmonger. She is never satisfied.
One man is dismissed because his sexual technique isn’t “natural.” Another is regarded with grave suspicion because a friend has warned her he is not part of her “milieu.” Isabelle has a young daughter but seemingly pays little attention to her.
Between romantic trysts, Isabelle is shown painting. (Binoche is shown standing on a huge canvas, laying down the pain in thick, elegant brushstrokes in best abstract expressionist fashion.) Gerard Depardieu turns up in time to give a rambling monologue over the final credits.
Denis’ regular cinematographer Agnès Godard keeps the camera fixed on Binoche throughout, circling her in the way a wildlife documentary might pursue its prey. Godard also manages to make night-time Paris look suitably dreamy and romantic. (Even a shot of the Eiffel Tower illuminated in the distance doesn’t, for once, look like a kitsch tourist postcard.)
The heroine exchanges lovers almost as frequently as she takes taxi rides round town. She shows little guilt or anguish. That means dramatic tension is in short supply. One lover refers to ”tacky bedroom farces,” but the film is nothing like one of those.
There are no jealous husbands or characters hiding behind doorways. Instead, Isabelle talks very frankly about what turns her on. As she confides to her friend Ariane, she was drawn to the banker with whom she had an affair precisely because he is such “a bastard.” She also knows just how to skewer her wealthy, land-owning friends who treat nature as if it is their own playground. (“The birds are yours too,” she taunts them.)
Let The Sunshine In doesn’t have much of an emotional kick. When one lover leaves Isabelle, we know another will be along soon. Binoche is such a compelling and mercurial screen presence that she carries the story. With a less charismatic star, the film could easily have become repetitive.
Binoche, though, manages to make Isabelle seem complex and mysterious rather than tiresome and self-pitying. She is on a quest for a romantic fulfilment that we know she will only achieve fleetingly but there is something admirable about her refusal ever to give up the search.
The Leisure Seeker (15)
Paolo Virzi, 112 mins, starring: Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney
The Leisure Seeker sees Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as an elderly couple on a road trip. He’s John, a Hemingway-loving academic now prone to severe memory loss. She plays Ella, his devoted wife, on medication for some mysterious illness herself.
They decide to take the family winnebago (nicknamed the “Leisure Seeker”) on an epic journey south from their home in Massachusetts to Key West in Florida. Their adult children are appalled that they’ve suddenly shot off without leaving any contact details or information about where they’re headed
Early fears that the film turn into yet another of those sappy romcoms for the saga generation turn out to be misplaced. This is a well-written affair that deals surprisingly frankly with the plight of its protagonists.
Mirren and Sutherland excel as the rebellious old-timers, determined to have a “little bit of fun” before they die or are institutionalised. Italian director Paolo Virzi captures both their lust for life and their fear at what might soon become of them.
With its Janis Joplin, Carole King and Bob Dylan music and sequences of the winnebago heading down the highway, the film feels like a proper road movie, albeit not one in the fast lane. It has drinking, sex and plenty of outdoor adventure as well as encounters with armed robbers and patronising cops. At the same time, it’s a story about illness and mortality. John has to deal with his incontinence and his inability to remember what just happened.
From time to time, John’s old personality will come back. He’ll be urbane, considerate and articulate as he holds forth on his favourite Hemingway stories. “It’s so nice when you forget to be forgetful,” Ella tells him when he turns on the charm.
The next moment, though, he will be uncertain of where or who he is. He will suddenly grow very jealous about one of Ella’s former boyfriends from more than 50 years in the past.
During her lengthy stage and screen career, Mirren has played her share of Tennessee Williams heroines. Her Ella here is from the deep south and speaks in the same lilting tones as her characters in Williams’ Orpheus Descending or The Roman Spring Of Mrs Paul.
The difference here is that Ella is neither neurotic nor a tragic figure. She is a resilient, worldly wise figure, able to guide a husband whose faculties are failing on a trip from one end of the USA to the other.
It’s the summer of 2016 and the Trump campaign for the Presidency is in full swing. One of the stranger comic scenes involves John joining a Trump rally. He’s a Democrat but waving and chanting patriotic slogans turns out to be very therapeutic for man in his condition.
He is a dolt among dolts. Sutherland captures the child-like quality of his character, now dependent on others but who retains some of his old anarchic spirit. At times, he is blissfully happy as he gatecrashes a wedding or eats an ice cream by the sea front. He also grows increasingly exasperated at his memory losses and his “stupid, empty head.”
Director Virzi isn’t frightened about combing scenes of screwball-style comedy with very bleak moments in which both the main characters’ frailties become painfully apparent. This is a tale about enduring love but it is also the story of a death trip.
Sentimentality and morbidity sit side by side. Thankfully, Mirren and Sutherland bring enough mischief, humour and passion to their roles to ensure that the film’s more toe-curling moments are quickly forgotten.
Every Day (12A)
Michael Sucsy, 97 mins, starring: Debby Ryan, Maria Bello, Owen Teague, Angourie Rice, Colin Ford, Lucas Jade Zumann
Every Day suffers from a very shaky sense of identity. The premise suggests it should be a horror movie but instead we are presented with a warped story about high school romance.
The idea here is that a mysterious, ineffable spirit, “A,” inhabits a new body every day.”A” never takes over the same person twice. Those it possesses are always around the same age. Angourie Rice plays Rhiannon, the student who falls in love with “A” and then has to make the relationship work even as the spirit is busy hopping bodies.
Sometimes, it is a boy; sometimes, it is a girl. The spirit doesn’t discriminate about gender, ethnicity or body shape.
Rhiannon first falls under “A”’s spell after her boyfriend Justin (Justice Smith) whisks her away from school for a day by the seaside. During their magical day together, Justin, generally the high school jock type, suddenly develops unheard of powers of sensitivity and empathy.
His idea of romance is generally to hang out in front of the X Box and eat pizza but, for a few hours at least, with “A” inside him, he turns into a regular Prince Charming. The next day, though, back at school, he is his usual boorish self.
In the course of the film, Rhiannon encounters all sorts of other people also inhabited by “A.” These include a suicidal teenage girl, a very overweight boy, a sensitive Catholic type who dances with her at a party, a punkish female who meets her in a bookshop, and the handsome Alexander.
Thankfully, “A” has an Instagram account and so the two sweethearts can communicate even when he/she/it doesn’t have a body to squat.
Every Day is based on a young adult novel by David Levithan. Its central idea might have been intriguing in a literary context but seems deeply contrived in a movie. Director Michael Sucsy’s approach to his outlandish material is on the timid side.
Apart from one chaste kiss which Rhiannon shares with another girl possessed by “A,” he doesn’t let his heroine get too physical with anybody other than the most likely suspects (that’s to say, the good looking male, heterosexual ones.)
”A” doesn’t appear to feel any guilt either about the havoc wreaked on the lives of those whose bodies are taken over.
It goes without saying that Rhiannon has “issues” in her own family. Her father has lost his job and become a reclusive artist, obsessed with painting faces. Her mother, now the breadwinner, seems to be having an affair.
You might suspect that this has prompted Rhiannon to have a mini-breakdown and start fantasising about the mysterious “A,” but nothing in the film’s approach suggests that she is hallucinating. Nor does Every Day appear intended as a satire about members of a generation so obsessed with social media that they have forgotten how to deal with real human beings.
We don’t learn where “A” comes from or he/she/it is heading either. This means there’s a gaping emptiness at the heart of the movie where its main character should be.