UK Release Date: 25th July 2016
Runtime: 101 minutes
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Ken Loach, Nell Dunn
Starring: Carol White, Terence Stamp, John Bindon, Kate Williams, Queenie Watts, Billy Murray
Synopsis: A young woman struggles to bring up her son as she continuously ends up with abusive or criminal men, looking for stability in all of the wrong places until she finally realises what’s important.
Ken Loach is the undisputed master of the kitchen sink drama. His movies paint a realistic vision of the British working class, often with a socially critical edge that reflects the director’s left-wing politics. It was his second film, Kes, that truly made his name and that film is often considered one of the best British movies of all time. However, two years before Kes took flight, Loach made his debut feature Poor Cow, which is a compelling and atmospheric tale of one young woman struggling to make a life for her and her child in 1960s Britain.
Joy (Carol White) brings up her young son with her bullish husband Tom (John Bindon), an abusive thief who is sent to prison after a heist goes wrong. Joy briefly moves in with her aunt (Queenie Watts), but soon forms a relationship with Dave (Terence Stamp), another thief who was an associate of Tom’s in the past. When he is also incarcerated following a violent robbery, she vows to stay with him but drifts into promiscuity and self-destructiveness when she starts working in a bar and modelling with her friend Beryl (Kate Williams).
There’s a sense of scrappy, rough-edged filmmaking in Poor Cow. Loach’s debut has absolutely no smooth edges and is made with a palpable sense of grit and grime. The characters live in dingy, dirty flats in which there’s barely room to swing a welfare cheque. From the first moments we meet Carol White’s Joy, it’s clear that this is a woman who has, through a poor choice of husband, found herself raising her son in a poor and inappropriate environment. Loach pulls no punches in depicting the bleakness of her world, making the most of the claustrophobic settings to showcase how trapped Joy is in the world she has made for herself.
White’s performance is unusual and beguiling, marrying the innocence of the early stages with the cynical, promiscuous woman she becomes in the final stages of the film. A scene in which she takes part in a seedy modelling photo shoot and becomes uncomfortably popular with the overcoated, bespectacled photographers is a troubling and compelling depiction of a woman sacrificing her innocence for money. It’s a complex and heartbreaking turn that creates a realistic portrayal of a woman who finds herself thwarted in every attempt to make something of her life. Loach’s script elegantly plays with the audience’s feelings by putting us firmly on her side, only to force us to question that when her intrinsic love of danger drives her into dark and seedy worlds that threaten her life and that of her child.
Poor Cow also does a tremendous job of building its central male characters – abusive boar of a man Tom and the sensitive, but slimy, Dave. John Bindon is terrifyingly plausible as an alpha male who cares only for himself and his criminal plans. His relationship with his son is, at best, apathetic and he constantly mentally and physically abuses Joy. Dave, meanwhile, is a silver-tongued, handsome charmer, but he proves himself to be irresponsible enough to find himself locked up and controlling enough to try to run her life from his cell. Stamp’s performance conveys this perfectly, especially in the film’s high point – a montage of better times played out to Stamp’s haunting rendition of ‘Colours’ by Donovan.
There’s nothing perfect about Poor Cow. It feels overlong and the narrative loses focus at several points, particularly in the later stages. However, the strength of the performances and the potency of its setting carries the film through its flaws. It’s clearly a debut feature, as betrayed by its slightly clumsy execution, but it’s one that clearly contains the blossoming flower of the filmmaker who would become one of the bona fide greats of modern British cinema.
The film is the main showcase here, but there are new interviews with Loach, Stamp and Nell Dun, who wrote the original novel and collaborated with Loach on the script.
Pop or Poop?
The first signs of a legendary director are evident in the rough around the edges charm of this kitchen sink drama. Poor Cow is a gritty tale of loss of innocence, portrayed with real complexity by Carol White, with impressive support from a cavalcade of grim male characters.
Loach’s socially conscious filmmaking is evident here, conveying the cramped reality of working class London with an enthralling sense of perspective. It’s clumsy and occasionally ponderous, but there are flashes of genuine genius throughout.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Poor Cow is available on Blu-ray now courtesy of Studiocanal.