Judy & Punch is a stylish-looking folk tale from actress-turned writer-director Mirrah Foulkes, outlining a fictional origin tale for the famous British seaside puppet show (which actually went by the flipped-name title of Punch and Judy).
Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (Damon Herriman) ply their trade as puppeteers in the ramshackle and landlocked town of Seaside (three day’s mule ride from the ocean). Their popular marionette performances are always packed out, yet never quite produce the income they hope for. Convinced of the show’s quality, and of his personal talents, Punch is hopeful that sooner or later talent scouts will see the performance and sign them up for a big city run. Judy wishes for success also, but her view is more realistic, concentrating most of her non-puppetry efforts on taking care of their newborn baby and keeping Punch away from the bottle. Of course, it’s not too long before Punch’s proclivity for alcohol, combined with an ugly temper, cause events to take a dark turn.
From the outset, Judy & Punch has a battle on its hands. The origin of a 16th century British puppet show is definitely subject matter we might charitably describe as ‘niche interest’; it’s a brave marketing department taking it on, particularly in a month that sees the return of Martin Scorsese, Stephen King and The Terminator to cinema screens.
To its credit, Judy & Punch has its own interestingly off-kilter style. The intriguing production design sits somewhere between authentic squalor and Shakespeare in Love fantasy, while Mirrah Foulkes has a good eye for a rustic woodland visual. The village outcasts camp, hidden away among the trees and the bracken, looks more like something out of The Witch than Robin Hood. There is also François Tétaz’s nice, creaky, disconcerting score lurking in every corner, and Foulkes makes sure that Judy & Punch’s speculative entomology covers everything from the traditional puppet show – from the sausages, to the policeman, to the crocodile.
The performances can’t be faulted either, with Mia Wasikowska in predictably great form as Judy, a calm and measured presence in a village teetering on madness, but perhaps a little too naive in still believing in Punch.
Damon Herriman’s Punch is aggressive, manipulative and utterly petulant. His large personality, while popular with the townsfolk, is a palatable-in-small-doses fragment of a character undone by lack of willpower, narcissism and temper. Herriman is excellent in a role that requires him to be almost a cartoon villain, yet also believably appealing to the residents of the village.
However, Judy & Punch is a strange film to categorise. Certain elements work very well while others struggle to translate, most notably the tone. We start off in a Blackadder 2 sort of mood, what with all the big neck ruffs and comedic Monty Python-esque stonings. But before long some dark stuff occurs and the film doesn’t know whether to play it for laughs or our heartstrings. Although, in fairness, that has much to do with the subject matter.
By the time we reach the third act, Judy & Punch starts to unravel. Everything goes a bit Christmas Carol at one point and once Punch starts quoting Russell Crowe in Gladiator, verbatim, it’s time to get your coat. There’s also an unsophisticated, albeit well-intentioned, message about embracing our differences glommed on at the end. While it’s hard to fault the sentiment, the sudden introduction does feel somewhat out of left field.
Judy & Punch is a bit of a puzzle. It’s interesting on the one hand, but too unsure about whether it wants to be light and breezy or darkly comedic. So while there is much to like about it in isolation, overall it’s not consistent enough to fully deliver.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Judy & Punch’ opens in Australian cinemas on November 21.