I first heard of the Poor Cow when I saw The Limey, and I learned the flashback footage of Terrence Stamp in that film was from this one. "Poor Cow", I thought, "What's that? Oh, early Ken Loach. Well, maybe I'll see it one day."
Well the day has come, and it's no wonder Stamp went on to the career he has had; he is as charismatic as the devil. Magnetic. But this film belongs to Carol White as Joy. She is sensual, flighty, funny, resilient, silly, defiant, unreliable, and loving.
The third star of the movie is Ken Loach. Knowing the career he has gone on to have, it's easy to see the roots of it here; empathy for the working class, highlighting societal issues that hold people back, and a naturalistic style.
That naturalistic style had yet to be perfected here, or perhaps the actors were not used to this way of working. Whatever it was, some of the scenes suffer from a meandering vagueness, a sense that no one knows what to do next. (I laughed out loud at the part where, when planning a heist, one of the men starts demonstrating how to wear a stocking your head while another feigns deep interest.)
The choice to open with the smash-boom-here-we-are birth of her son followed quickly by shots of Joy walking the bustling streets of London while Donovan smoothly croons in the background lets us know we've entered Joy's world at a pivotal moment, and that this will be a film concerned with the gritty business of life, and how far removed it is from the images in our dreams.
The movie is structured as a series of vignettes; scenes from a life. We skip ahead days or weeks or months, as Joy moves from man to man, and home to home. We work out what's happened in-between, and how Joy is attempting to keep living the good life in sixties London while raising her boy. That Joy's love of sex, and her occasional dip into semi-prostitution, is presented not as a matter of shame but as a confluence of need, desire, and opportunity is to the film's credit. Loach and his co-screenwriter Nell Dunn (based on her book) have no interest in judging Joy; they are interested in following the story of a single mother as she tries to live her life in the best way she can.
The film's structure though ultimately lets down the story - the attempt to reach a conclusion at the end feels rushed. Joy's more or less back where she started and this circularity, plus the final episode being just another event in Joy's life, add to a sense of a story without direction. Loach's future features, even those dealing with smaller stories, like Ae Fond Kiss, have a narrative arc to follow. Poor Cow just sort of stops. But although we cease following Joy on her chaotic, impulsive adventure without a real sense of where she will go from here, the film has etched a clear portrait of this brassy, resilient woman. As the credits roll, we know Joy is still out there, struggling to realise her self, looking for salvation and love in all the wrong places.