Poor Cow Review
Probably coincidentally, all of the other three of Optimum's “60s Classics” released this week (A Taste of Honey, A Kind of Loving and A Touch of Love) hinge on unplanned pregnancies. Poor Cow begins with Joy (Carol White) giving birth to her son Jonny. (Footage of real childbirth is intercut into this scene.) Her abusive husband Tom (John Bindon) is put in jail and she takes up with his mate Dave (Terence Stamp), who is soon put imprisoned himself. Left alone with her baby son, Joy has to take pleasure where she finds it.
If A Kind of Loving was a film set in the North directed by a Londoner (John Schlesinger), Poor Cow is the work of a Midlander (“Kenneth” Loach, born in Nuneaton) taking on a Greater London subject. (Both films were produced by Joseph Janni, an Italian, who had made Darling with Schlesinger in between.) “The world was our oyster...and we chose Ruislip,” says Joy at one point and there are locations in Battersea and Fulham to be seen. The film is based on a novel by Nell Dunn, with the screenplay the work of Dunn and Loach.
Nell Dunn, born 1936, came into prominence, and some controversy with Up the Junction, a collection of stories set in South London. Dunn had rebelled against her upbringing (she was a convent-school-educated baronet's daughter) and had moved to Battersea, working in a sweets factory. Her book was praised for its non-judgemental view of its characters, all from an entirely different social background to the author. The book was adapted for TV (directed by Loach in 1965 as a BBC Wednesday Play) and film (1968, directed by Peter Collinson). Dunn's later work includes a successful stage play Steaming, itself filmed in 1985 and Joseph Losey's final directorial credit.
Loach had worked extensively in television up to this point, including the hugely influential Cathy Come Home. Carol White had played the lead role in that play, and also had been second-lead in the TV play version of Up the Junction, and she took the lead role in Loach's first cinema feature. Poor Cow is primarily a character study, as over ninety minutes Joy realises what is important to her in her life. Once she has done this (no spoilers, though it's not hard to guess) the film reaches its open-ended conclusion.
Poor Cow is a film somewhat in conflict with itself: Dunn's and Loach's impulses towards documentary realism rather undermined by sixties modishness: the use of intertitles to divide the film into sections, direct address (by Joy) to camera, some New-Wave influenced camerawork (albeit in colour). Some of the films in this mini-collection did their bit to push back the boundaries of what was acceptable in the cinema – certainly more than the small screen allowed at the time – and you can sense the makers of Poor Cow pushing things a little further. This is apparently the first British film in which the word “bugger” is heard (though it was beaten to this by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and there's a flash of a breast during the modelling sequence. (The BBFC did cut Poor Cow for a X certificate back in 1967, though I don't know what was removed.) And much surface grit is undermined by Donovan's songs on the soundtrack.
Loach is the kind of filmmaker you can easily imagine working in black and white, and if this film had been made even two years earlier it may well have been. But this was 1967 and colour TV had arrived in Europe (the UK and West Germany only so far) and monochrome was on the way out in the cinema. (Leaving out his 60s TV work, the only Loach film that actually is in black and white is 1981's Looks and Smiles.) The DP is the late Brian Probyn, an British-born Australian who went on to photograph several Hammer productions, is one of the three credited cinematographers on Badlands and worked in Australia until his death in 1982. There's nothing wrong with his work as such, except to say that it's very much of its time, with more than a few heightened colours: as with the Donovan songs it tends to work against the subject matter. Every now and again, Loach is content simply to observe, in several sequences that have little to do with any kind of plot, such as Jonny (now a toddler) playing with a young girl. Carol White was not the most accomplished of actresses, but her artlessness does work for this film, whose sympathy for Joy – despite many bad choices – is not in doubt.
More recently, Steven Soderbergh used extracts from Poor Cow as flashbacks to Terence Stamp's character's past in The Limey. The original is certainly worth seeing, though nowadays it's something of a period piece, and something of a compromised one, no doubt for commercial reasons. Loach would make two more features at two-year intervals - Kes and Family Life (also a big-screen version of a Loach-directed Wednesday Play, David Mercer's In Two Minds), then spent the following eight years working in television. Carol White turned up regularly in films over the next decade (including I'll Never Forget What's'isname for Michael Winner, Made for John Mackenzie and The Squeeze for Michael Apted). She died in 1991, aged only fifty, of liver disease.
Poor Cow is one of four “60s Classics” released – separately – by Optimum. As with the other three films, the disc is a DVD-5 encoded for Region 2 only. The film is also available as part of an eight-film boxset, Ken Loach Volume 1, released by Spirit Entertainment, but I have not seen that release.
As with A Taste of Honey and A Touch of Love, Poor Cow is presented in the ratio of 1.66:1, which seems correct. Like the latter but not the former, it's anamorphically enhanced. Probyn's photography is quite grainy in places – though not as grainy as the documentary childbirth footage, which makes it stand out a mile – but I suspect that's due to the original film and its methods of production - such as shooting on colour stock far less sensitive than today's, in natural light. The colours are vibrant and shadow detail is what it should be.
The soundtrack is mono, as it should be, and dialogue and sound effects are generally well balanced, as are Donovan's songs. Presumably much of the film was post-synchronised as there are occasional lipsynch issues, for example John Bindon's opening line. However I suspect that's due to the film and not a fault with the DVD.
As before, no subtitles and no extras.
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Last updated: 13/07/2018 07:29:12