Judy & Punch

 

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An Australian film of remarkable individuality that ought not to be ignored despite its faults.

 
Judy & Punch  

The greatest showwoman: Mia Wasikowska

 

We have here a film which initially is a triumph but which sadly turns into what if not a disaster is certainly a disappointment. Even so, it stands out as a remarkable feature debut for the Australian writer/director Mirrah Foulkes. She has come up with a wonderfully unexpected notion which results in the first half of her movie looking like a potential masterpiece. The problem is that she loses her way in trying to develop the idea into a satisfying second half.

 

The traditional Punch and Judy show belongs essentially to an earlier era and has come to seem like a relic of a now distant past. Foulkes's inspiration was to recognise how relevant this old entertainment remains, especially when it comes to its surprisingly violent elements centred on the abusive Mr. Punch. To give this extra force she has come up with a story in which the puppeteers are a married couple whose private life closely echoes that of their puppets - indeed, we only know these two as Mr Punch (Damon Herriman) and Judy (Mia Wasikowska). Furthermore, Foulkes recognises that Mr. Punch's behaviour - that of a man whose weaknesses cause him to succumb to drink, to have an eye for other women and to hit out to assert patriarchy - can be seen as relevant to the 21st century without any need to set the tale in a contemporary setting.

 

In point of fact, Judy & Punch takes place in a period setting that is left imprecise. This enables Foulkes to add another dimension in that there is an echo here of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. The story plays out in a town where any citizens who are nonconformists are readily branded as heretics and witches who, doing the work of the devil, must be confronted: hangings and death by stoning following confessions extorted through torture are the order of the day. Here too prejudice and tension remind us of today's world. Indeed, Judy & Punch is a film that encourages us to recognise the extent to which certain current traits which are disturbing have ancient roots.

 

If the concept is inspired, its treatment reveals Foulkes as an able director while, in a well-chosen cast, Herriman gives a well-gauged performance as the brutal Punch and Wasikowska reminds me all over again why she is one of my favourite actresses. The letdown lies in the plot development as Judy & Punch becomes less and less sure-footed (there is an ill-judged scene reminiscent of the ghostly confrontations suffered by Dickens' Scrooge and what had been a music score of originality and brilliance with a passing debt to Bach yields its place to three songs chosen as a kind of comment on the action which would work better in a different kind of movie). For that matter the storyline, so original in the first half, ends up akin to a conventional revenge drama. That being so, to feel disappointment is inevitable, but one only feels it so acutely because the first half of Judy & Punch is outstanding.

  

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Terry Norris, Gillian Jones, Tom Budge, Benedict Hardie, Lucy Velik, Brenda Palmer, Daisy Axon, Don Bridges, Kiruna Stamell, Paul Ireland, Virginia Gay.

 

Dir Mirrah Foulkes, Pro Michele Bennett, Nash Edgerton and Danny Gabai, Screenplay Mirrah Foulkes, Ph Stefan Duscio, Pro Des Josephine Ford, Ed Dany Cooper, Music François Tétaz, Costumes Edie Kurzer, Dialect coach Jenny Kent.

 

Vice Studios/Screen Australia/Film Victoria/Create NSW/Blue-Tongue Films/Pariah-Picturehouse Entertainment.
106 mins. Australia. 2019. Rel: 22 November 2019. Cert. 15.