'Judy & Punch': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
That's how you do it.

Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman star as Judy and Punch for this reworking of the classic British puppet show from Australian actor turned writer-director Mirrah Foulkes.

Utterly bonkers but also sort of brilliant, Judy & Punch creates an origin story for the traditional British puppet show (usually known as Punch and Judy,) resulting in a tonally complex comedy-drama about spousal abuse, infant mortality and misogyny told with magic tricks, puppets and slapstick. That writer-director Mirrah Foulkes manages to pull this unlikely trick off, with assistance from a strong cast and a smart technical team, is even more impressive given this is also the Australian actor's first feature, following some well-received shorts.

Having the reliably excellent Mia Wasikowska (of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland franchise) star as the titular Judy will help get this some notice as it hits the festival circuit after a well-received debut in Sundance. That's just as well, since few people will have heard of most of the cast outside of Oz, although the film's Punch, Damon Herriman, will soon be seen playing Charles Manson in Quentin Tarantino's recently wrapped Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

In fact, not many audiences outside of the U.K. and some of its former colonies (and fans of Russell Hoban's cult post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker) will be familiar with Punch and Judy puppet shows, the inspiration for this feminist reinterpretation. The spin put on the material in Foulkes' script, working off a story developed by brother and sister Tom and Lucy Punch (no relation), Eddy Moretti and Danny Gabai is similar to the fairy tale and classic story rejigs by the likes of novelists Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood, among others. The idea is often to take fantastical or gothic elements from the source material and then subversively read against the grain, uncovering the psychology and social conventions that underpin the fantasy tropes, such as fear of murderous stepmothers in versions of Snow White and so on.

In most iterations of the usually improvised Punch and Judy, itself an appropriation of the Punchinello stock character from the commedia dell'arte, the crook-nosed Mr. Punch is married to the long-suffering Judy, whom he frequently beats with his big phallic stick. Ancillary characters include their baby, who often ends up being killed one way or another; a dog that steals the sausages Punch so loves; a policeman; a crocodile; and the Devil himself, who usually shows up at the end to drag Punch down to hell.

All are present and correct here, albeit as living human beings who interact with the two main protagonists, Mr. Punch and his wife Judy, traveling puppeteers who have returned with their infant daughter to Judy's hometown, Seaside, a small hamlet nowhere near any actual sea, the name reflecting the generally dim intelligence of the populace. Despite mention of London being not that far away, the film was shot not in Britain but in a leafy forest in Victoria, Australia, which only adds to the discombobulated atmosphere, as does the mix of British Isles accents on display, ranging from Ulster guttural and near-impenetrable Highland Scots to cackling Cockney.

In Foulkes and company's insightful reworking, Punch is a wolfishly charming rogue, not without talent but an incorrigible binge drinker who gets mean when he's sloshed. He's also perhaps a little jealous of Judy's innate skill and artistic flair, even though she's happy to hang back from the spotlight and work the other marionettes in the show. Inevitably, he falls off the wagon, and a string of well-timed comical mishaps involving the baby, dog, sausages and two old retainers, Maud the Maid (Brenda Palmer) and her dementia-addled husband Scaramouche (Terry Norris), lead to an abrupt and disturbing tragedy, swiftly followed by violence.

To tell much more would spoil the fun, even if that sounds like an unlikely result given the above. But Foulkes manages the film's many tonal shifts with impressive nimbleness, smoothing the transitions with a subtle original score by Francois Tetaz and a quirky soundtrack that includes an electronic take on Bach's "Air on a G String" and Leonard Cohen's "Who by Fire." Indeed, throughout, Foulkes and her collaborators playfully weave together period-accurate details and cheekily incongruous anachronisms, like having a squadron of characters in Renaissance dress performing tai chi moves together in the forest. Likewise, the dialogue mixes it up with archaic elocutions and more modern turns of phrase along with classic Punch and Judy lines such as "That's how you do it," but somehow the final effect is neither jarring nor arch. Meanwhile, Stefan Duscio's digital cinematography uses, per press notes, old-school lenses to create intentional imperfections and digital grain in post, all of which contribute to a somewhat antic 1960s or '70s cult-film vibe, as if the Monty Python troop were making a spoof of The Wicker Man.

The ensemble is right in sync, threading the needle perfectly between comical caricature and exaggeration with a more naturalistic vibe. Wasikowska offers a slightly typecast mix of fey dreaminess and steely determination, but she's as usual utterly mesmerizing to watch, and has great onscreen chemistry with Herriman's sexy utter shit of a husband.

Production companies: A VICE Studios, Screen Australia presentation in association with Film Victoria, Create NSW of a Blue-Tongue Films, Pariah Production
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Tom Budge, Benedict Hardie, Lucy Velik, Gillian Jones, Terry Norris, Brenda Palmer

Director-screenwriter: Mirrah Foulkes, based on a story by Tom Punch, Lucy Punch, Eddy Moretti, Danny Gabai and Mirrah Foulkes
Producers: Michele Bennett, Nash Edgerton, Danny Gabai
Executive producers:
Eddy Moretti, Vincent Landay, Natalie Farrey, Jennifer Semler, Tom Punch, Lucy Punch
Director of photography: Stefan Duscio
Production designer: Josephine Ford
Costume designer: Edie Kurzer
Editor: Dany Cooper
Music: Francois Tetaz
Music supervisor: Jemma Burns
Casting: Kirsty McGregor
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Cornerstone Films

105 minutes