Judy and Punch, 2019.
Directed by Mirrah Foulkes.
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Benedict Hardie, Brenda Palmer, Terry Norris, Virginia Gay, Tom Budge and Kiruna Stamell.
A twisted odyssey of violence and revenge, inspired (sort of) by the classic British seaside tale.
The tradition of the Punch and Judy show is one of the most recognisable relics of a British culture that is dying out. The days of a sweaty bloke going by the name Professor hiding in a box while operating a big-nosed slapstick fella hitting people with a massive stick are mostly gone. And yet, any Brit of a certain age will feel a warm, fluffy nostalgia at the memory of it. There’s no fluffy nostalgia at play in Aussie writer-director Mirrah Foulkes’ brilliantly twisted Judy and Punch, but there’s an awful lot to chew on.
Foulkes opens the movie with tinklings of François Tétaz’s fairytale-inspired score as the camera follows a diminutive, hooded figure through the woods and into a raucous drinking hole in the village of Seaside (“nowhere near the sea,” says a title card). That bar is home to Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska), who work together on a puppet show they hope will be talent scouted into the big city. Judy worries the show is getting too “punchy and smashy”, but Punch just wants to consume as many sausages as possible – obviously. A quasi-slapstick sequence involving a baby, followed by a horrific outburst of violence sees Judy apparently dead and Punch frantically trying to obscure his crime.
Of course, Judy is not dead and has been taken in by a community of heretics living out in the woods. They’ve had to exile themselves from the town because it has a history of executing anyone who’s different as a witch. One woman is publicly stoned to death because she was “caught staring at the moon for a suspiciously very long time”. The message is clear. This is a ridiculous caricature of an intolerant society, built on a patchwork of cultural influences. Foulkes’ argument appears to be that our society is built on this sort of intolerance, which is baked into many of our longest-running cultural artefacts, including the shocking domestic violence of the Punch and Judy tradition. It’s a persuasive take and one that gives the film its vicious satirical impact.
But there’s also something irresistibly playful about the movie. Its #MeToo era politics are worn absolutely on its sleeve and it makes no secret of its status as something of a revenge fantasy, but it’s also a gallows comedy in which literal gallows play a frequent part. The violence is as comically over-cranked as it is horrifying and Herriman’s performance, in particular, speaks to this tone. He’s like the bastard offspring of his own take on Charles Manson in Mindhunter (not the near-wordless Once Upon a Time in Hollywood incarnation) and Hugh Jackman’s PT Barnum – a murderous showman who’s as charismatic as he is serpentine. He’s a hissable villain in exactly the way this dark pantomime needs, blaming his crimes on the kindly servants in his home.
Mia Wasikowska, too, is dependably brilliant as Judy – a defiant woman who is tired of spending her life dealing with an abusive alcoholic, when it’s her who really has the talent in their double act. Much of the film sits on her shoulders and she is more than capable of carrying the weight. Alongside her inscrutably dark performance in the underseen horror Piercing earlier this year, her latest descent into bleak theatricality is a joy to behold. Those Alice in Wonderland movies now seem mercifully far away.
Foulkes embraces the oddity of her vision in the deep reds and faux-luxurious, baroque colours of the production design, as well as some grotesque theatrical make-up. This is a world in which almost everybody is experiencing poverty, but many like to pretend they aren’t. The script is packed with delightfully incongruous anachronisms, from some decidedly modern turns of phrase to a sequence in which a doomed character recites almost verbatim the pivotal speech from Gladiator. It’s a constantly off-balancing film in a way that could be off-putting for those who don’t fall for the wicked charm of Foulkes’ twisted world.
For those who do buy in to the weirdness, though, Judy and Punch is a liquorice-sharp treat of dark comedy. It doesn’t go down easily, but it shoots for the fences in taking the constituent parts of a beloved family favourite and twisting them into something grotesquely contorted and misshapen. That’s the way to do it!
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.