I suspect acclaimed British director Andrea Arnold would rather be viewed as a stroppy cow than a poor one. Perhaps coincidentally, Luma – the bovine heroine of Arnold’s first documentary – excites many emotions, but never anything as simple as pity.
Luma, who has the eyes and jawline of a young Sophia Loren, lives on a small farm in Kent. When we first meet her, she’s having a baby. When she’s presented with her sticky little calf, Luma licks the creature into shape. Soon though, she and the calf are separated and Luma, who’s constantly told she’s a “good girl”, is being prepared for another lucrative pregnancy. She gives birth, again, and one of the farmers notes that Luma, when calves are around, is so protective she’s hard to handle. Says one of the farm-hands, “Is she that bad?” and the logic of that statement is clear. Animals are only “good” when they’re obeying orders.
The farmers, by the way, are not the villains of this piece. In fact, that they let Arnold hang around their gaff for so long (four years in total), suggests they’re pretty selfless. Assuming viewers aren’t vegan already, they’re pretty much guaranteed to leave Cow thinking, “Soya products here I come.”
Arnold provides no narration. She doesn’t milk (sorry) our emotions or shove us in the direction she needs us to go (except once, via a rather obvious musical cue). Arnold’s handling of the viewer, in other words, is the opposite of the farm’s handling of Luma. For practically the whole 94 minutes, Arnold lets us roam free.
We have to piece together what’s happening, just as we do in Arnold’s fictional films. Of all of Arnold’s characters, Luma has most in common with Red Road’s Jackie. The latter, having lost her child, has a heightened need to take care of others. Watch Luma as she frets over her own newborn, while someone else’s calf gets tangled on the bars of the pen: Luma can’t relax until the calf’s back in the fold. Her surveillance skills are superb. She’s equally impressive when the camera gets in her way (with a splendidly languid moo, she knocks it sideways). Luma, from whatever angle you wish to view her, is no pushover.
There are moments, admittedly, when Arnold gets bogged down in details. The calf whose birth we witnessed at the beginning grows up, while Luma is herded from pillar to post. Arnold can see the cud for the feed but, for this viewer, things sometimes got a little confusing.
Then something fabulous happens, something that’s not remotely Disney cute, but is definitely surreal. Luma’s udders, always obscenely engorged, now swing beneath her like a separate entity. It’s as if she’s carting around The Magic Porridge Pot. Is she now capable of feeding the whole of England or is there something wrong? Then a man appears. Before you register what’s in his hand, you wonder why he’s wearing headphones. It’s only mid-January, but I doubt any film in 2022 will end on a more shocking or life-changing note.