Film review: Cow
Moving documentary filmed on a dairy farm
“Have you ever looked a cow in the eye?” If you watch Andrea Arnold’s documentary, “you certainly will”, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. Shot over four years on a dairy farm in Kent, this surprisingly gripping, largely wordless film allocates much of its 94-minute runtime to a Holstein-Friesian called Luma. We watch her give birth. We watch her chew cud. We watch her get “hooked up to a milking machine, its nozzles splayed out like the heads of hungry leeches” – and then “we watch those processes again. More birth; more milk.” The film is “grimy and unvarnished”; it captures the “banal cruelty” inflicted on dairy cows – but there are moments of poetry, too: “at one point, Arnold even catches Luma gazing dreamily up towards the stars”.
“This is certainly not the first film to make the point that industrial farming and animal welfare are uneasy bedfellows,” said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Yet this “important” documentary “encourages an intimacy and emotional connection with its bovine subject that is rarely achieved elsewhere”. Shots have a “handheld urgency, the lens positioned at udder and eye level”; tellingly, it’s a good 45 minutes before we “even glimpse a blade of grass”. It’s a bleak film, and a challenging one, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Why would I watch a cow for 94 minutes? “What does this cow do that’s so interesting?” But you end up caring, and the finale, when it comes, is hard to bear. The trouble is, vegans already know about industrial dairy farming, and the rest won’t seek out this film, because they prefer to look away. All I can say is that the “next time I went to put milk in my tea, I did feel Luma’s big eyes upon me. So it is absolutely haunting in that way.”