The debut feature film from Ken Loach, Poor Cow is a calling card in line with everything else that he has since added to his filmography. And it has some moments here and there that resonate strongly, especially for anyone who has ended up, even fleetingly, regretting their choice of partner. And who hasn't been in that position?
Carol White plays Joy, a young woman who lives her life seeking simple pleasures, often at the expense of her own wellbeing. She has a child, sees her abusive partner sent to jail after a robbery, and then tries to figure out her best path through life. Well, she tries to figure out how to have some fun, get some money, and be as footloose and fancy free as she can. Which leads her from one bad situation to another, even if she doesn't realise it at the time.
Adapted from the novel by Nell Dunn, who also helped co-write the screenplay with Loach, Poor Cow is a nice balance of the good, the bad, and the ugly. White helps to keep things upbeat and energised, her indefatigable presence perfect for the main role, and there's also a surprising array of pop hits scattered throughout the soundtrack. While Joy is shown to be repeating mistakes throughout her life, there are also times when she's to be admired for simply doing what she thinks needs to be done. That may be for money, it may be for security, it may be for the benefit of her son, but she doesn't rule out many options when she has her mind set on ways to help her immediate future.
As well as White, John Bindon stands out in the role of Tom, the man that Joy ends up with, for better or worse, and Terence Stamp impresses as Dave, a man who treats Joy much better than Tom ever did. Ellis Dale turns up, playing a solicitor, while the rest of the cast is made up of relative unknowns (I certainly cannot recall seeing many people here in other films anyway).
It's perhaps even more interesting to watch Poor Cow nowadays than when it was first released, considering how much of Joy's behaviour may have been judged more harshly back in the 1960s. She's very often portrayed as a girl, and a girl playing happy families until that illusion is shattered, but she's also a woman able to walk through her neighbourhood without being made to bow her head by the others gossiping about her. Perhaps this was always there in the material, viewers figuring out whether Joy is to be pitied or admired, or perhaps it's just an inevitable consequence of watching the film through the filter of modern life. Either way, Poor Cow holds up as a fantastic first film from a director who has been consistently impressive now for over five decades.