In recent memory, there are few films that have made me quite as angry as Mirrah Foulkes’s feature-length directorial debut Judy & Punch. Debuting at Sundance in 2019 before a long theatrical release, the film itself is a brilliant dark meta-comedy which takes the famous “Punch & Judy” puppeteering show and makes it tangibly real and strangely modern. So ingratiated is humanity’s acceptance of violence against women, that to see it depicted in a puppet show is considered “family friendly.” Foulkes seems to ask her audience several accusatory questions, asking for individual and personal contemplation, as she takes the story of the puppet show and makes it corporeal. The end result is something Burton-esque: darkly comic, ghastly, and altogether real.
After a bout of misfortune, master puppeteer Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) and his wife and partner Judy (Mia Wasikowska) return to her hometown of Seaside in hopes of developing their puppet show and garnering more attention. The first show back is an absolute hit in town and makes Punch the most popular resident there. However, when a tragedy occurs due to Punch’s crapulence and violent nature, it falls on Judy to ensure the proper punishment does not fall on innocent shoulders.
Foulkes’s opening tells you just about everything you need to know before the main players are introduced. As the playfully gloomy score from François Tétaz (Wolf Creek) plays over the studio credits, text appears indicating the location as “Seaside.” This name appears in quotes with additionally text indicating that it’s somewhere in the country and nowhere near the sea. It’s a silly bit of information signaling that the residents have high opinions of themselves, even if they aren’t as prosperous as others. A seafaring town would be a valuable trading point, inviting travelers from other areas to come through, whereas a landlocked town requires people to have a need to come through. As such, the townspeople only prosper when they work together and Foulkes quickly indicates that they are a people easily coerced via fear tactics. Punch, we soon discover, is perfectly suited for Seaside as he’s something of a marvel to them, whereas other cities won’t welcome his baser habits, habits presented for the residents of Seaside and us, the viewing audience, when Punch and Judy go to work with their show depicting puppet Punch beating puppet Judy, battling the devil, and more. Then, the day after their first performance back, Punch and Judy take part (albeit extraordinarily differently) in Stoning Day, wherein the local “spiritual leader,” Mr. Frankly (Tom Budge), has gathered three women who are presumed to be witches for public punishment. Like the crowd, Punch is delighted to engage, even throwing the first stone (an occurrence which one suspects is a play on John Chapter 8 Verse 7), oblivious to the pain and suffering he’s causing. In a brief period, Foulkes lays out the tone and the temperament of Judy & Punch before the real pain begins and the softly comical gives way to grotesque farce.
As profoundly uncomfortable as this makes me to write, as quirky fun as the film is at the start, once the trauma begins is when Judy & Punch hits its stride. From here, Foulkes uses the mid-17th Century mindset to explore modern problems of toxic masculinity, addiction, and self-aggrandizement as the film itself begins to mirror the very puppet show the audience watched at the start. Punch does incredible violence through acts and words, seemingly without any real punishment. The fact that it falls to Judy to find some kind of equity speaks to the centuries old injustice of the burden falling on women to salvage society. Remember: it’s women to blame for the weakness of man, so history tells us; a horrific argument made even now as frail and fragile men blather and gnash their teeth at the thought of a women’s body not being theirs for comment or possession. This is represented in Judy & Punch by Mr. Frankly who wishes to maintain his power by refusing the secular notions represented by the newly established Constable Derrick (Benedict Hardie). You see, it’s the outlandish claims of witchcraft that free Punch from responsibility, despite the attempts by the law to follow the evidence, evidence which takes too long to find and isn’t trusted in the eyes of the township. Why follow evidence and reason when we have generations of beliefs to guide us? Foulkes’s script sounds eerily familiar to the tribulations of the modern era. All of this is explored further when the audience learns about the heretics living in the dark forest. We know little of their supposed crimes, but after an hour of listening to Punch’s and Mr. Frankly’s blatherings, it does not matter. The audience knows who the real villains are. It’s not just Punch and Mr. Frankly that Foulkes blames, there is plenty to go around, and the audience is not left unscathed, if the montage over the credits are any indication.
One would be remiss to mention that it’s not just the narrative which Foulkes nails, but the composite materials making up the rest of the film: the casting, the cinematography, the previously mentioned score, and the direction. Anyone familiar with Herriman’s work FX’s Justified knows that the actor can play a truly lovable asshole and, that is incredibly useful here. The audience needs to believe that Punch is charming, not just with the audience, but with Judy, the one person who knows him best. There’s a sense that she turns a blind eye to his repeated promises because she’s convinced that his talent equates to a good man. Wasikowska, for her part, is absolutely tenable as the far more talented and resourceful Judy. Where Herriman conveys Punch as a man who only thinks about what’s in front of him, Wasikowska portrays Judy as the consummate chess player, having won the game before Punch knows she’s his opponent. None of it is played for flash or trickery by Foulkes, with all of Judy’s capabilities placed right before us, as though Foulkes wants us to consider if we even noticed Judy’s contributions before the tragedy or only considered them after. The supporting cast of Hardie, Budge, and others makes the whole of Seaside depressingly plausible with their sincerity transforming the morbid into farce and making it far more palatable. Adding a bit of wonder and magic into a story whose foundation is pure misdirection is cinematographer Stefan Duscio (Upgrade). In researching Judy, it was fascinating to learn that the hazy, old celluloid look of the film is from a filter being applied to a digitally captured image since shooting on film was too expensive. The final product wonderfully captures the visual essence of the tale: distant and tangible, yet somehow otherworldly. Pulling it all together is Foulkes’s confident, disarming direction. From the sweeping camera tracking a small figure through the town of Seaside at the start to capturing the moment of tragedy, Foulke always has a purposefulness to what we see and what it means. Why is the child cloaked through the small town? What would a child have to hide? Most importantly, and an aspect that speaks volumes, is that the violence in the film is rarely the focus. Too often violence is the showcase, the camera lingering too long or past the point of comfort, so that the audience must endure the acts. Within Judy, it’s not the violence which takes center-stage, but the individuals taking part. It’s an act of mercy, of respect, for the victims in not glorifying them, while forcing the audience to really look at who is doing the violence. Disturbing to say the least. Nevertheless, it is necessary.
Judy & Punch is the kind of film that can be enjoyed merely as a female revenge story, but I caution any potential audience member against only viewing it through such a narrow lens. The film is satisfying, even when viewed so singularly, except it becomes a juicer experience to look beyond Judy’s revenge. Given the opportunity, Judy & Punch reveals itself as much deeper, thoughtful, and emotional a ride, should you allow yourself the opportunity to take it in, to mull it around, and discuss it with others. This becomes especially critical as the ending seems to betray itself, suggesting that the final word is in fact the last word. That is certainly one take. I can’t help but wonder if, instead, Foulkes is asking the audience one last time to consider if the story is really over. If not, what will they do about it?
Available on VOD June 5th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.