Judy and Punch was the second of three Australian films I saw at Sundance (the other two being The Nightingale and Little Monsters) and has a surprisingly similar subject matter to The Nightingale – a woman seeking revenge against a violent and abusive man. Tonally, however, it could not be more different from Jennifer Kent’s film – Judy and Punch is much bawdier, more outrageous, funnier and fantastical. For those unfamiliar with the British seaside puppet show that this film based on, there could be some baffled reactions. Based on the stock characters from the show – Judy, Punch, Pretty Polly, The Baby, The Dog, The Policeman, The Crocodile and lots and lots of sausages – which are, in turn, based on characters from commedia dell’arte – this film twists and turns in many unexpected directions. It starts off in the fairly miserable setting of the town of Seaside (a landlocked town in the middle of nowhere) and has a Gothic feel, a hooded figure makes their way through the night to a theatre where Judy (Mia Wasikowska) is playing the role of the ‘bottler’ – collecting coins before the show starts. It is her job to ‘big up’ her husband Punch (Damon Herriman) – declaring him one of the greatest puppeteers of the age. But when the show starts, it is clear that not all of the talent belongs to her husband.
It becomes apparent that Punch is both a drunk and a womaniser. One day when he is left alone with The Baby, he gets drunk, falls asleep and The Baby almost crawls into the fire. The Dog steals some sausages (a running gag from the puppet show) and whilst chasing after the runaway hound, Punch trips and throws The Baby out of the window. This is the point at which an audience could be lost or won. The film has been a fairly realistic drama up until this point – with naturalistic performances and some serious subject matter. The baby-chucking moment is exaggerated and over-the-top, prompting nervous giggles from the audience I was with. However, it is completely in-keeping with the source material and as I have mentioned, reactions to this film may depend on how familiar you are with the characters and story-lines from the traditional seaside entertainment. Once Judy discovers that The Baby is missing, Punch attempts to do away with her. Unfortunately for him, Judy isn’t *quite* dead. She is discovered by a band of outlaws and misfits living in the woods and there she begins to plot her revenge.
Director Mirrah Foulkes has assembled a team which includes many craftswomen. One of the best aspects of Judy and Punch are the costumes (by Edie Kurzer) and production design (by Josephine Ford). This especially kicks into a higher gear when Judy takes refuge with the “Merry Men” style outlaws living in the woods (who are actually made up of mostly women, many of whom are under threat of being branded witches). The casting (by Kirsty McGregor) of the extras and minor roles is extraordinary for the fact that I’ve never seen so many “normal” looking people (especially women), of all shapes and sizes on a big screen. It is delightfully refreshing to see people you can identify with and relate to on a cinema screen and also deeply sad that this is such a rare occurrence. The score (under the musical supervision of Jemma Burns) is also phenomenal, creepily Gothic at times and soaring and urgent at others. The landscapes are surprisingly English, given that this was filmed in Melbourne, but both time and place are kept deliberately vague. The setting of the gallows is particularly stunning.
Mia Wasikowska gives a typically great central performance after years of delivering stellar work in the likes of Crimson Peak, Jane Eyre, Stoker, Tracks and Maps to the Stars. The writing is a great strength of this film. I would not be surprised to read reactions saying that Judy and Punch is “tonally all over the place” but for me, it strikes what is a difficult balancing act mostly successfully. The abuse and violence is taken seriously, but this film is also noting that a popular children’s theatrical experience was predicated on a man horrifically abusing his wife and child. The “slapstick” – a baton wielded by Punch in the puppet show – is a feature here and it is forcing you to confront what the reality of that would actually look like. This film is also addressing themes which are unfortunately becoming relevant again – such as witch hunts, vigilantism, mob rule and baying crowds being whipped into a fervour by preachers or other leaders who pray on people who want a scapegoat to blame. The people who have taken refuge in the woods all have something “different” or “other” about them and are therefore distrusted and feared. Yes, there are aspects of melodrama and theatricality, but this film makes relevant points, has interesting themes and delivers them in an entertaining fashion. Achieving all of this whilst basing the story on both Punch and Judy and commedia dell’arte is nothing short of ingenious.
If Judy and Punch gets a US theatrical release, I will be really interested to see what the reactions are like – frankly, I’m not convinced that US audiences will get this film. Even British audiences probably need to be above a certain age to appreciate the references and the clever way the stock characters are inter-weaved into the story. However, it deserves to find an audience, as it’s a well written and directed story, with excellent acting, score and visuals. Judy and Punch juggles tone skillfully – managing to be funny and entertaining whilst also making serious points which are relevant to the society we are living in now. It will definitely be worth seeking out.