Judy and Punch
Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Tom Budge, Benedict Hardie, Terry Norris, Virginia Gay, Gillian Jones
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There are memorable moments and promising directorial touches but, in another way, there is so much crammed in that it becomes a bit of a dog’s breakfast.
Australian actor turned first-time feature director Mirrah Foulkes has given us a puzzle in her oddball film Judy and Punch. You could say this was a kind of high concept film. The idea of recovering, or literally re-covering, the Punch and Judy show as a sort of fable about marriage and the battle of the sexes (read domestic violence) – is a proactive starting place. And, true to the 17th century original (the concept was imported into England in the 1660s from Italy), the show has Mr Punch enthusiastically whacking his wife Judy, both via the puppets and backstage.
Early on, Judy (Mia Wasikowska) says to her drunken spouse (Damon Harriman), there seems to be a lot more “bashy” in the show now. Punch slaps her down verbally by saying that the public likes “bashy” and therefore it stays in the show. We see straight away the dynamic between them and fear for her and all those around the volatile Professor Punch.
Foulkes has set her film in a late middle ages village called Seaside (a nod to the puppet show’s normal location perhaps, but in this case deliberately upended as it is nowhere near the sea). The village is inhabited by a range of rather overripe characters and the general bawdy atmosphere of superstition and mob cruelty seems to carry the day. The gentler souls – a band of misfits in the villagers’ eyes – have been exiled to the forest beyond. The townsfolk are more archetypes in a way and the film doesn’t really trade in much semblance of psychological realism, any more than it has conventional plotting other than one tragi-comic inciting incident.
The look and feel of the film are certainly interesting, but it has to be said that the tone throughout is bit uncertain. Sometimes it is rollicking fun, at other times we feel we are being preached to in modern terms by the script. Proponents of the film will see this as deliberate, others will see it as a serious lack of clarity of purpose. Of course, we should recall that the original puppet show was not just intended for kids, it was a saucy (and ‘violent’) entertainment.
There are a large array of influences and genres on display too, from female-driven revenge thriller to Monty Python madcapism. In fact, the Pythonesque elements are a case in point for, at times, the film resembles something by Terry Gilliam with all the ill-discipline and excess of whimsy that might imply.
The director has gone on record as saying that we should see the film as “bat shit crazy and fun”. Well, be careful what you wish for. One person’s crazy is another person’s WTF? It is certainly a film that will provoke and divide audiences. It is good not to be bland. There are memorable moments and promising directorial touches but, in another way, there is so much crammed in that it becomes a bit of a dog’s breakfast – with extra sausage of course.