Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Ken Loach
Stars: Carol White, Terence Stamp, John Binden
Released 25 July 2016
Earlier this year, Ken Loach won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for I, Daniel Blake. This year has also seen the restoration and re-release of his very first feature, Poor Cow, from 1967. It returned to cinemas recently and is now out on DVD. Loach’s film career – he started in TV – reaches a half century next year and Poor Cow was where it all started. The tone has hardly changed.
Based on the novel by Nell Dunn, who co-wrote the screenplay in Loach (he didn’t start his collaboration with Paul Laverty until 1996 with Carla’s Song), it follows the life and misfortunes of the ironically named Joy (Carol White). The film opens with her giving birth to her little boy, Johnny, in 1960s London. Although married to the boy’s father, she soon finds she has to look after herself when goes to jail. She finds temporary happiness with Dave (Terence Stamp) but they’re separated as well, so she is forced to provide for herself and her son in any way she knows how.
Interviewed recently on Radio Four about the film, Loach described it with typical modesty as being “better than I thought it was” and, to today’s eyes, there is a roughness around the edges. Nell Dunn’s original book was a series of vignettes rather than a novel in the conventional sense: she and Loach have linked them together with a narration from Joy, contemporary music and chapter headings, again all Joy’s own words, to give us the story of one young woman’s life. Not as overtly political as we’ve come to expect from Loach, but definitely a social commentary and, for today’s audiences, a piece of modern social history.
What are regarded as essentials nowadays – bathrooms, washing machines, disposal nappies – simply aren’t around and Joy’s accommodation isn’t much better, just threadbare flats or rooms. Yet you can’t escape the contemporary resonance lingering just below the surface: life hasn’t changed that much for low-income families. And women are expected to know their place, in other words look after the children and the home and do everything they’re told to do. If not, a slap is usually their reward, often in public as we witness, along with Joy and Dave.
Joy fits the mould, believing that having a man in her life is the most important thing, but her choices are less than ideal. Husband Tom (John Binden) is a burglar, which means sometimes they’re hard up and sometimes they’re not. Or, as one of the chapter titles puts it “When Tom was in the money, the world was our oyster. We chose Ruislip.” But he’s also abusive, caring little about his son, and goes to prison after his latest “job”, leaving Joy to fend for herself. Her relationship with his friend, Dave, is probably the closest she gets to happiness: they’re genuinely happy, he loves her little boy and treats her with tenderness and respect. But, just like Tom, he’s a burglar: Joy knows this, but he deliberately conceals the whole truth about what he does from her – as she discovers at his trial. What she hears just doesn’t equate with the man she knows and loves.
She then flits from man to man, and job to job, working as a barmaid and also modelling for amateur photographers with her friend Beryl (Kate Williams). Her pretty smile and flirtatious nature mean that she’s rarely alone – something she admits to being scared of – and that she can get work easily. And it’s a heartfelt performance from Carol White, whose acting career peaked in the 60s – she was TV’s Cathy in Loach’s Cathy Come Home – and saw her typecast as women who survived the hardships life threw at them. Here, she’s bright but perhaps not as smart as she thinks she is, has terrible taste in men but still retains a vague ambition to “make it”, in other words have lots of money and a comfortable life. How she intends to achieve that is less clear.
Loach doesn’t completely overcome the film-making challenges presented by the vignettes in the original book. Chopping the film up into short chapters, linked by titles and music is functional, but produces a jerky feel. What makes up for it is the quality of the performances and the semi-documentary realism that runs throughout: Terence Stamp has been quoted as saying that most of the scenes in the film were improvised and it very often looks like it. It’s all intermingled with shots of real people, such as at the seaside or on the streets of East London.
It’s easy to view Poor Cow with 20/20 hindsight. We know how life in this country, for women in particular, has changed and we know how Loach’s career has developed. Look at it through 1960s eyes and you see something mould-breaking, shocking – the opening shots of Joy giving birth leave little or nothing to the imagination – and sometimes too close to home. And that’s how we should watch it.