Could 2013's most heartbreaking love story take place between a man and his prize dairy cow?
Man and beast, at one in the sunny English countryside. Stephen Hook is The Moo Man, a relentlessly chipper East Sussex dairy farmer who develops intimate personal relationships with his heard. No, not in that way. But yes, also. In that way.
Andy Heathcote's lo-fi observational doc appears, from the outset, to be a piece of brazen advertorial for British dairy farmers, their exploitation by wholesalers and supermarket chains, and the gradual dwindling of their ancient trade. But it soon mutates into a romance between Hook and his prize cow, Ida. Indeed, this may be the first ever big screen weepie in which manure features (either physically, or as a reference) in virtually ever scene.
The film offers an episodic jaunt through Hook's 18-hour days in which we're shown his particular brand of animal nurture, the antiquated machinery he uses and his tireless efforts to make "raw milk" a hot topic at the various farmers' markets of southern England. His dedication to the cause is often miraculous, and an evening spent delivering three calves in quick succession is, for him, nothing particularly worthy of high emotion.
There is one moment where Hook is allowed to rant at the camera, delivering an impassioned and completely reasonable broadside to a government which allows these hard-working, homegrown artisan traders to languish in penury. But for the rest of the film, it's largely just a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of his jolly daily travails. That is until the focus tightens on to his relationship with Ida, a long-time soulmate who receives more screen time than Hook's own wife. Ida's various maladies cause Hook immense pain, and the final stretch of the film should not be entered without stacks of tissues to hand.
Alongside Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, this is another documentary which gradually transcends its subject matter to explore man's uneasy, unfathomable relationship with the animal kingdom. Yet where Herzog proposes an infinite psychological chasm that can never be breached, Heathcote says that it is possible to cultivate satisfying and complex relationships with animals, even though you never know that the love and compassion you give is probably not received and definitely not returned.
Low-key Brit doc on farming practice. Doesn't really leap off the page?
A true blue charmer. An epic (platonic) romance between man and beast.
A lovely little film which amounts to much more than its director perhaps intended it to.