12 September 2012 | JamesHitchcock
Just what is it about Joanna Lumley and the cinema?
Just what is it about Joanna Lumley and the cinema? Joanna is one of Britain's most popular television actresses, and is widely admired for her beauty (even in her sixties), her graciousness and her humanitarian and charitable work, yet whenever her agent sends her a film script her judgement seems to desert her completely. There have been occasional exceptions, such as her cameo in the excellent "Shirley Valentine", but too often the presence of J-Lum's name in the cast list of a feature film serves as a warning that it will be a turkey of massive proportions. Her first credited role was as a Bond Girl in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", possibly the worst-ever Bond film, and since then she has graced some of the worst British movies of the last forty years, such as "Don't Just Lie There, Say Something", "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" and the awesomely bad "Prince Valiant". The Michael Winner satire "Parting Shots" had some points of interest and was certainly not as bad as the above-mentioned, films, but even there Joanna, miscast as a Cockney barmaid, was not at her best.
"Mad Cows" is another example of Joanna's talent for choosing the least distinguished vehicles in which to display her talents. It appeared in the same year (1999) as "Parting Shots" and, like that film, has ambitions to satirise the state of British society in the late nineties. The main character, Maddie Wolfe, is a young Australian single mother living in London, and the film follows Maddie's misadventures after she is arrested for shoplifting a bag of frozen peas. While she is being held on remand in prison, a demented psychiatrist tricks her into signing a form giving her young son up for adoption. Much of the rest of the plot is concerned with Maddie's attempts, occasionally assisted by her friend Gillian, to save the boy from this fate.
I have never read Kathy Lette's original novel, or for that matter any of her books, but I cannot say that the film acts as a good advertisement for her works, although Lette herself presumably approved of it as she agreed to make a cameo appearance. A number of other celebrities do the same, including Lette's husband the lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, the model Naomi Campbell and Mohammed Al-Fayed, who appears as a doorman at Harrods. (At the time the film was made he was the owner of the store).
The film has two main problems. The first is that director Sara Sugarman seems to have encouraged her entire cast to overact frantically. Maddie is played by Anna Friel, regarded as something of a rising star in the nineties, largely on the strength of her controversial lesbian kiss in "Brookside". (Today, of course, gay and lesbian plot lines are commonplace in soap operas, but twenty years ago they were still regarded as shocking). I will leave comment on the Lancashire-born Friel's Aussie accent to the Australians themselves, but her character comes across as strident, brazen and surprisingly unsympathetic for someone who is supposed to be the heroine of the film.
Lumley's character Gillian is even less sympathetic, even though she is supposed to be the heroine's best friend. She is played as a sort of upper-class Sloane Ranger down on her luck, desperately in need of money and prepared to do anything, including prostituting herself or blackmail, in order to get it. Lumley overacts just as frantically as Friel, but the worst offender in this regard is the late Anna Massey as Dwina Phelps, a psychiatrist far madder than any of the patients she treats. Greg Wise is better as Maddie's useless upper-class ex-boyfriend Alex, although he makes Alex so convincingly caddish that we never understand just why Maddie keeps returning to him. (Every time she does so, of course, he manages to alienate her again by revealing himself to be even more of a selfish bastard than she had previously realised).
The film's other main problem is that its satire, whether directed against the police, the criminal justice system, the psychiatric profession or politicians, is so exaggerated as to be ineffective. Some of the issues involved may be real social problems- adoption agencies pressurising working-class mothers to give up their children to childless middle-class families, political corruption, police officers bullying suspects accused of minor crimes- but the film addresses these issues in such crude, heavy-handed terms that it can make no contribution to the debate, not even on a comic level.
"Parting Shots" was occasionally guilty of the same fault, and it had other faults such as the miscasting of the wooden Chris Rea in the leading role, but at least it partly succeeded in its aim of holding up a satirical distorting mirror to Blair's Britain of the late nineties. "Mad Cows", by contrast, does not succeed in any of its aims, unless we can assume that Sugarman deliberately set out to make one of the worst British films of the decade. 3/10