(Ken Loach, UK, 1967) 101 minutes


Director: Ken Loach
Producer: Joseph Janni
Screenplay: Nell Dunn, Ken Loach,
  based on the novel by Nell Dunn
Cinematography: Brian Probyn
Editor: Roy Watts
Music: Donovan
Carol White (Joy)
John Bindon (Tom)
Kate Williams (Beryl)
Queenie Watts (Aunt Emm)
Geraldine Sherman (Trixie)
Terence Stamp (Dave)
James Beckett (Tom's mate)

Reviews and notes

1968 Karlovy Vary, Thessaloniki

British filmmaking icon Ken Loach was still calling himself Kenneth when he shot this heartbreaking drama depicting the tough flipside of swinging ’60s London. Carol White is Joy, a battered wife and mother who gets a new lease of life when her husband is banged up for armed robbery. Shacking up with guitar-strumming good-time-boy Dave (Terence Stamp), Joy struggles to find her feet in a world where society’s sands are shifting and the role of women is becoming increasingly uncertain. Taking his cues from the French New Wave but adding an intimate, non-judgmental empathy all his own, Loach immerses us in the character of Joy – her loves, fears and failings. But Poor Cow also offers a microcosm of working-class life, with [camera operator] Chris Menges’s restless camera winding through bustling streets and bombsites, smoky pubs and poky flats. It may not have the emotional intensity of Loach’s very finest work – that would come with Kes, two years later. But Poor Cow is a remarkable film, a time-capsule character study of great warmth and compassion.
- Tom Huddleston, Time Out.

In an early scene in Poor Cow, Joy (played magnificently by Carol White) walks down a busy south London street, carrying hre newborn baby under one arm. The camera cuts back and forth between her farway face and the people around her, as Donovan's doleful song Be Not Too Hard plays: "Be not too hard for life is short / and nothing is given to man."

At the beginning of the film, director Ken Loach establishes the kind of compassionate, socialist perspective that would permeate the rest of his career. Joy's independence and individuality shine, but she is also shown, thanks to thoughtful editing, to be a product of society (in which nothing is given to man, and even less to woman).

Poor Cow was Loach's first feature film, and in many ways it's a blueprint for those that followed. It charts three years in the life of Joy - a young, hopeful, resilient woman who enjoys having different men to suit her "different moods". Her husband Tom (John Bindon) is a physical and emotional bully, who soon winds up in prison, leaving her alone with their son Jonny; and while Tom is away, Joy falls in love with one of his criminal associates, Dave (Terence Stamp, on excellent form). For a heartbreakingly brief period, Joy, Dave and Jonny experience true happiness together.

The performances are semi-improvised, giving the dialogue an immediate, naturalistic feel, and the soundtrack is a collage of Donovan songs (written specially for the film), snatches of commercial radio and occasional voiceover from Joy. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Nell Dunn – a writer known (though not well enough) for telling the stories of working-class women in the 1960s with a kind of brilliant, radical honesty; Loach takes lines directly from Dunn's writing, weaving them not only into the voiceover, but also into the dialogue and even the intertitles. There's no doubt that the film owes much of its warmth, wit and originality to the novel.

Re-released nearly 50 years after it was first seen in cinemas, Poor Cow still feels fresh and urgent – even though the casual sexism, throwaway racism and ambient seediness it depicts root it firmly in the later 1960s. This formally innovative, tender film reminds you why Loach, about to release his 50th major work at the age of 80, is so worth celebrating.
- Anna Coatman, Sight & Sound, August 2016.

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