POOR COW

1967; directed by Kenneth Loach; adapted by Nell Dunn and Kenneth Loach; 101 mins

As we walked out of the screening of this film, my Mum and I were talking about the menu board outside the seaside cafe with all it’s offerings of offal and we started talking about the various accompaniments for chips such as curry sauce or gravy or cheese and then moved to the best meal of all time: faggots, chips and mushy peas!

That’s the thing with this film, is it’s dedication to depicting a life that knows nothing other than it’s social surroundings. It’s very like Roberto Rossellini’s films, Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero in it’s placing of actors amidst the milieu of contemporary surroundings (you can’t help but suspect that one argument seen through a window must’ve been caught on the fly). That connection with the Italian neo-realist movement rings true also because a lot of the scenes are bookended by cutaways to Victorian slum housing, kids playing on the beach or men and women chatting each other up in the pub. The film is there to show how these lives come to be by immersing the audience in the characters’ world.

The story I keep referencing is that of Joy, a working class girl who we meet giving birth to her son, Johnny. She’s married to Tom who’s part of a gang but early on he’s nicked in a botched robbery and soon she hooks up with the only member of the gang who got away, Dave. He eventually gets sent down for other misdemeanours and so on Joy hops to the next flat, the next job, the next bloke, with little Johnny in tow. Trying to keep her head above water and get by.

This is a very progressive film (as one would expect from Ken Loach) because no matter what Joy does, the film never judges her. She sleeps around and she makes bad choices but Loach and screenwriter Nell Dunn see this only as mistakes we all would make. Most movies, even today, haven’t got their heads round the idea of a woman who needs to get hers from a man, especially a working class woman with fellas who keep getting sent down. As she says; “I can’t wait another eleven years, can I?”

As Joy, Carol White makes good on the iconic work she did in Cathy Come Home. Here, she is hard-working, upright, forthright, scared, coquettish, sexy, level-headed, young, smart, stupid and a good laugh: all the things that make us the contradictory fleshbags that we are!

Like with his earlier TV work, Loach is still playing with form in this debut feature. The story appears to be told via an interview with Joy and there are chapter headings which evoke letters written to loved ones. He clearly was on the cusp of finding his true voice here (which would really come into it’s own with 1969’s Kes) but there’s no mistaking the work of the man who takes film as close to reality as any narrative director has dared.

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