Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Nell Dunn, Ken Loach
Based on the novel by: Nell Dunn
Producers: Joseph Janni, Edward Joseph
Starring: Carol White, Terence Stamp, John Bindon, Queenie Watts
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 101 mins
The term British New Wave for many people conjures up images of dowdy, kitchen-sink realism and grim plots about loneliness, abortion and domestic violence. The truth is that British New Wave films are a far more diverse set of fascinating glimpses into British society of the 60s and the cultural fascinations of the directors who made these wonderful films. For example, while social realism abounds in films such as This Sporting Life and The L-Shaped Room, it is also comically subverted in Billy Liar’s barrage of dream sequences or viewed through the prism of fame in Beatles musical A Hard Day’s Night. Classic literary adaptations like Tom Jones and Far From the Madding Crowd show the cultural influences on the movement, while The Knack… and How to Get It and If… combine societal satire with surrealism. Ken Loach, however, is largely known for the working class realism that puts so many people off British New Wave films and, not immune to a certain tentativeness when it comes to such grim entertainment myself, I have not seen very many of this much-loved director’s works. Determined to rectify this, I jumped at the opportunity to review Studiocanal’s newly restored release of the director’s debut feature Poor Cow.
Loach had made his name with groundbreaking and enormously popular TV plays such as Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home and although these famous works set up a certain expectation, Poor Cow undermines this by proving to be a surprisingly leisurely, vibrantly colourful film which became a big hit on release, even if critics of the time were largely unimpressed. Poor Cow follows the life of Joy as she drifts from one unpleasant man to another while caring as best she can for her infant son. In terms of plot, that is about it but Poor Cow is more concerned with examining Joy’s character and how she deals with this apparently empty life. Although there is an undoubted irony in naming the character Joy, there is also heavy irony in the film’s title, which suggests a patronising pity from onlookers which does not chime with Joy’s dispassionate responses to the trials she faces.
Although much is made of Terence Stamp’s excellent portrayal of one of Joy’s criminal boyfriends, the success of Poor Cow largely sits on the shoulders of two women; star Carol White and writer Nell Dunn. Loach’s direction is pacey and engaging but still feels a little loose at this stage, perhaps inevitable given the material. In the role of Joy it is essential that we have a charismatic and convincing lead and Carol White, who had worked with Loach on the aforementioned TV plays, fits the bill perfectly. She has what I can only describe as a magnetic normality, appearing completely naturalistic in her reactions to the sometimes less-than-naturalistic non-professionals that populate Loach’s cast. Writer Nell Dunn has made a beautiful job of creating a character who, while not wholly sympathetic, is fully understandable and realistic. As she shrugs off several criminal acts perpetrated by her lovers, Joy also moves on when each one gets their comeuppance, knowing that there is no point crying and wailing about something she can’t change. This acceptance of the hand that life deals her results in an ending that might seem tragic if meted out to a less dispassionate character. Here, it just seems to suggest that Joy’s tough life will go on as it has for the last hour and a half. She seems trapped by circumstance to an extent but, in a straight to camera interview which breaks from the format of the rest of the film, she rationalises the situation with a refreshingly upbeat attitude that suggests this is far from the end of her sexual misadventures.
The much-parroted suggestion that Poor Cow presents the other side of Swinging London is true to an extent, as Loach presents Joy’s life as being weighed down with a level of responsibility that necessitates her staying home in the evening while her middle-aged Aunt gets dolled up to go out on the town. But to some extent Poor Cow also feels in tune with Swinging London films, thanks to its vibrant colour pallet and glimpses of modelling studios and sleazy photographers, who don’t escape Dunn’s judgement as readily as Joy does. There is a comically warm feel to Loach’s documentary style scenes in the bar where Joy works and a soundtrack of 60s hits, including original songs by Donovan, also give Poor Cow a frothy feel which may surprise those expecting an exhausting record of working-class hardship.
Poor Cow feels a little like a TV director finding his feet in the world of feature films but in doing so Loach manages to relate an entertainingly simple tale of one woman’s trying but not overly dramatic life. Its apparent lack of narrative ambition is also its strength, putting across a sense of time, place and character without weighing it down with easy judgement or overt moralising. The lesson that Joy learns in the small burst of incident at the film’s end is compromised by her questionable interpretation of it, warning viewers against oversimplifying the lives of others. In this respect, Poor Cow is the perfect title, combining a patronising sympathy with a contemptuous disregard. These complexities would help enrich Loach’s next film Kes, which was immediately hailed as a classic, but Poor Cow is more than just a training exercise. In the pantheon of debut features, its an impressively emotionally-rich start to a long career.
Poor Cow is released by Studiocanal on Blu-ray and DVD on 25th July 2016. Extras are as follows:
–Poor Cow & The British New Wave – a brief featurette which provides helpful contextual information on the film in a rather dry fashion.
– New interviews with Ken Loach, Terence Stamp and Nell Dunn – this set of new interviews with some of Poor Cow’s key players get progressively better. Loach has the most to say but is also the least engaging interviewee, while Stamp is interesting but turns the interview into a career self-assessment. Dunn is a delight, espousing her progressive views and relishing the memory of how at-odds they were with interviewers of the time.
– Archive interview with Carol White – given the progressive nature of Poor Cow, it is hilarious to contrast it with this short, stuffy on-set interview from the archives.