Judy & Punch
This subversive fairytale turns a problematic puppet show into a feisty delight — complete with fantastic performances by Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman.
November 21, 2019
Sometimes, a film lives and thrives thanks to its casting, benefiting from stellar actors who melt into their roles. That's the case with Judy & Punch, with Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman breathing life, depth and a roguish attitude into characters best known as wood, string and fabric. As the title makes plain, they're playing Punch and Judy, the puppet-show figures that date back more than three centuries. Still, while writer/director Mirrah Foulkes tasks her stars with fleshing out the marionettes' wholly fictional origin story, she doesn't rely on the duo to do all of the movie's heavy lifting. Her interpretation of the tale — the bold, subversive directions she takes it in, and the feisty, cheeky vibe the film adopts in the process — makes as much of an impact. Jumping behind the camera after acting in Animal Kingdom, Top of the Lake, The Crown and Harrow, Foulkes ensures that her filmmaking debut isn't the kind of feature that lights up screens often.
The movie starts with two versions of Punch and his other half: one cavorting on stage, the other pulling the strings behind the curtain. The crowd roars as the perpetually drunken Punch (Herriman) and the long-suffering Judy (Wasikowska) manoeuvre and manipulate their inanimate counterparts, with the pair packing in shows in Judy's insular (and curiously inland) hometown of Seaside. Judy is actually the more dexterous and talented of the two, but Punch gets all the fame and acclaim — partly, reflecting his brutish personality, by making their puppet show literally "punchier". He makes their daily life punchier as well, and thinks nothing of treating Judy and their infant daughter with contempt, whether he's seeing another woman, complaining whenever Judy says a word or showing that he's the world's worst father.
With the real-life Punch and Judy famously based on the former's slapstick violence towards the latter, you can be forgiven for feeling cautious about how a live-action version will play out. It sounds strange and inappropriate, but Foulkes is keenly aware of the material she's working with. In her hands, Judy & Punch takes puppet-show savagery and lets it loose in live-action, then rightfully questions why it's considered entertainment. And to really hammer home her point, she needs to unleash a flurry of physical and metaphorical blows. The filmmaker isn't subtle, but neither is a guy bashing his wife and child, which has happened in P&J since the 1600s. So, when Judy is the only person in the town to speak out against the communal stoning of women deemed witches — and, later, when a tragic turn of fate sees her seek solace among the local female outcasts, then plot her revenge — it's thoroughly designed to make a statement.
Kudos to Foulkes for not only reclaiming P&J's problematic narrative for Judy, calling out Punch's boorishness and asking why women have so often been treated so poorly — by their partners, by complicit communities and by mobbish societies as a whole — but for clearly having fun while she's doing so. Where this year's thematically comparable and similarly excellent fellow Australian film, The Nightingale, leaned into bleakness and pain, Judy & Punch veers the other way. The movie is styled like a gothic fairytale, with its crumbling castle, sprawling woods and Elizabethan-era costuming, and it takes that look and feel to heart. Dark, fanciful, perceptive, often comic — this mix of elements mightn't sound like a natural fit on paper, but it works. Judy & Punch's tone definitely wavers, although that's on purpose too. And when François Tétaz's percussion-heavy score keeps echoing, it constantly reminds viewers of the thuds, shoves and worse that have long been baked into Judy and Punch's abusive romance, while also proving audibly playful.
Given all of the above, you can excuse Judy & Punch for including a big speech at its climax; again, Foulkes isn't doing anything by halves. Nor is her cast, including the likes of Benedict Hardie (Upgrade), Tom Budge (Bloom) and Gillian Jones (Mad Max: Fury Road), who all help populate Seaside's chaotic masses. Wasikowska and Herriman are dream leads, though. She draws upon an ever-growing resume filled with fascinating and formidable women (Jane Eyre, Stoker, Tracks, Madame Bovary, Piercing… the list goes on), while he's having quite the malevolence-dripping year after stepping into Charles Manson's shoes in both Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Judy & Punch firmly tells Judy's story, so this is Wasikowska's film, but it highlights both of its main characters for a good reason. This thoroughly feminist hero doesn't just give a historic narrative a much-needed update and champion a timely cause — with their dynamic back-and-forth, she endeavours to cut Herriman's misogynistic weasel down to size, too.