Judy & Punch is magic. It’s dark and twisted and will have you laughing at events you’d ordinarily react to in horror. It will also have you flinching and looking away from the screen as your stomach churns. But most importantly, you won’t be able to look away.
An ambitious debut for actor-turned-director Mirrah Foulkes, Judy & Punch turns the classic puppet show on its head. Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) and his talented wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska) entertain drunken audiences with their increasingly violent marionette show. As the superior puppeteer of the pair, Judy is the drawcard for the show, with Punch’s penchant for whisky and debauchery causing trouble for the couple. It’s clear that the violence between the couple behind the puppets is no laughing matter. When tragedy strikes harder than Punch’s fists, Judy turns her mind to revenge.
Judy & Punch is surprising. The title sequence sets the film in the town of Seaside, which we’re told is nowhere near the sea. The costuming and characterisation set the time and place as 17th century Britain, however, the landscape defines the narrative as distinctly Australian. This muddled sense of time and place is never referenced, and that is part of the magic. This odd little town with its macabre love for stoning witches (women) to death is joyfully free from the binds of accurate historical fiction.
Is the plot of Judy & Punch strong enough to sustain a full feature film? Probably not – it does begin to sag and lose pace at the midway point. It could be questioned whether this is a short film stretched by Foulkes to hit the one-and-three-quarter hours mark. Is this an issue? Not really – the other elements of the film are delicious enough that you’ll be willing to chew through the more bland pieces of the film to savour the talent of Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman as they rage across the screen.
Under the direction of Foulkes, the tension and terror between Punch and Judy is palpable. Herriman is a force to be reckoned with, not afraid to lean into the brutality of his character. He plays the role of the abusive drunk with a significant amount of nuance. There are no two-dimensional characters here; Wasikowska also folds nuance into her portrayal of the long-suffering wife. Judy is both a mother and a wife, but losing those labels does not impact her identity – her strength comes from within and is embodied in her steely gaze.
Accompanying Judy & Punch’s wonderfully bizarre plot and imagery is the hypnotic score and soundscape. Composed by François Tétaz of Wolf Creek (2005) fame, the music is both hypnotic and unsettling. It undoubtedly heightens the viewer’s experience of the film, blurring the lines between macabre and humorous.
Judy & Punch is unlike any other Australian film. And in this case, that’s a very good thing.