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Film review: Judy & Punch

Film

The wicked humour of 17th-century Punch and Judy shows is given a topical twist in writer-director Mirrah Foulkes’ quirky exploration of domestic violence and showbiz sexism.

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Although shot in the Australian countryside with an entirely Australian cast, Judy & Punch has the dark, atmospheric moodiness of a European fairytale, albeit with oddball comedic undertones; think The Company of Wolves with a Pythonesque slant.

At a nuts-and-bolts level it’s a simple revenge story that has been padded out to fill its feature-length criteria but Foulkes’ script and direction have enough twisted originality to make this a film with plenty of clout.

The action takes place in the inappropriately-named Seaside, a whimsical landlocked town of yester-yore. The main source of entertainment is Stoning Day, where women who have committed crimes such as “looking at the moon for a very long time” are gleefully pelted to death by local townsfolk.

“Some folk are getting squeamish, ‘stop stoning women’, all that nonsense. It’s up to us to uphold the old values,” says local mayor Mr Frankly (Tom Budge) in a tongue-in-cheek dig at the patriarchy.

A puppet show mired in domestic violence is, of course, right up Seaside’s street so when Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and her feckless husband Punch (Damon Herriman) perform their Punch and Judy show, the peasant hordes are delighted. They howl with laughter as puppet-Punch beats puppet-Judy mercilessly with his “slapstick” (marionette antics exquisitely executed by Melbourne company The Puppetsmithery).

Back at home with their baby, the puppeteers have an all-too-similar relationship to their puppet counterparts. Judy is clearly the key player in the puppetry business: she draws in the crowd, makes and operates the marionettes and plans the events while simultaneously looking after the baby and trying to manage Punch’s alcoholism. Yet it’s frontman Punch who gets the attention and glory as the self-proclaimed “greatest puppeteer of his generation”. Ring any bells, ladies?

The to-and-fro of Wasikowska and Herriman keeps the action sparky but when Punch’s whisky drinking and violent temper spool out of control, he ends up losing the baby, beating Judy almost to death and dragging her battered body into the forest.

In a sardonic revisioning of the traditional P&J story, when Judy recovers from the beating she refuses to accept the victim mantle. Instead she takes control, calling the townsfolk to task for their vilification of women and making sure Punch pays for what he has done. Her final act of revenge cleverly references a significant moment in P&J history when puppeteers eschewed marionettes in favour of hand puppets.

The fact that this is Foulkes’ feature-debut makes her deft handling of the many, sometimes contradictory, design elements all the more impressive. The English folk-tale vibe remains intact despite a contemporary soundtrack (by François Tétaz), references to kung-fu movies and a synchronised tai-chi sequence.

Judy & Punch is a gutsy reimagining that taps into the ball-breaking zeitgeist in an unusual and delightfully rogueish way.

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