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Cow review – moo-ving doc goes inside the mind of a beast of burden

Andrea Arnold's latest protagonist may be a dairy cow, but she still affords her the dignity and rich inner life typical of her filmography

As anyone who’s been on a countryside hike can attest, there’s something slightly unnerving hidden in the eyes of a cow, simultaneously empty and piercing, somehow looking both at you and past you at the same time. Andrea Arnold’s fascinating and ultimately tragic documentary, simply titled Cow, makes the most of this contradiction, presenting us with countless close-ups of the face of a dairy cow, allowing us to impose as much or as little meaning on its subject as we’d like.

This cow is Luma, who spends her repetitive days on a dairy farm in Kent, on a constant cycle of pregnancy, birth, separation from her calf, and milking. Arnold’s camera sticks close to Luma constantly, never shying away from the grisly details of farm life and keeping the few humans involved at the edges of the frame – there are more moos than words in Cow’s 90-odd minute runtime.

It’s a tactic that proves involving and immersive (if a little slow at times), as you grow to genuinely care for Luma, though Arnold never takes the easy route towards anthropomorphising her. The gap between species is left unbridged, and there’s no explanatory voiceover whatsoever – you learn about Luma’s world pretty much exclusively through the way she interacts with it.

Though there are some moments of joy and beauty – a mad dash through the pastures in the early days of spring shows how much curiosity and fun a dairy cow is truly capable of – Cow is seldom an easy watch. Cuts away to one of her calves are sometimes sweet but mostly saddening, especially during an unsparing display of the branding, and the inevitable ending of a march towards slaughter is almost unwatchable.

Arnold is not asking us to take up arms against farms, merely to look into Luma’s eyes and think about what we see there, all the while neatly fitting into her oeuvre of unsatisfied creatures performing unsatisfying labour. In one moment a farmhand even mentions how Luma has got angrier as she’s gotten older. Perhaps in the same situation, you would too.

Cow is in UK cinemas from 14 January.

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