Judy and Punch is an Australian film by writer and director Mirrah Foulkes that tells a story involving alcohol and puppets. If you’re not at least intrigued by that brief synopsis, I probably don’t want to be your friend. To dig deeper into the film without giving away any spoilers, it’s the tale of a wife and husband who perform puppet shows in the backwoods town of Seaside, which the film ironically points out, is nowhere near the sea. The town is full of bloodthirsty backwoods townies with unreasonably strict religious beliefs and an obviously chauvinistic and misogynistic attitude towards everything female and everything slightly physically abnormal. This town’s xenophobia a joke unto itself.
Our main characters are Judy (played by Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (played by Damon Herriman). Judy is struggling to love a man who struggles with alcoholism. We are made to feel bad for Punch, and the story goes out of its way to assert that if he didn’t struggle with the disease, Judy and Punch would be a world-famous; the talent is there, but Punch and by proxy Judy’s talent and professionalism is inhibited by the proverbial drink.
As the story unfolds, Punch grows more and more aggressive, irresponsible, cruel, and manipulative. Something happens, and Judy is exiled from Seaside and finds herself amongst a camp of misfits and cast outs struggling to survive outside of the relentless persecution of the townspeople. These are the types of zealots who stone women because they looked at the moon too long. It’s a funny joke, but I could totally see stupid things like that happening back in the day.
“…if he didn’t struggle with the disease, Judy and Punch would be a world-famous…”
Damon Herriman is wildly entertaining. You love him for his charm, wit, and talented puppetry, but as the layers begin to peel back, you begin to see the selfish and self-preserving monster he truly is. I imagine this is what it’d feel like to be in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic, you can see fragments of the things you loved like the charm and the wit, but it’s still an awful situation to find yourself.
Mia Wasikowska plays Just as a warm and loving wife who has a sense of rare reason in Seaside, but her character arc forces her on a quest for revenge and Wasikowska transitions into that mindset well. The two of them have tremendous chemistry, and it’s compelling to watch their onscreen relationship fall apart.
Benedict Hardie plays Constable Derrick, the newly hired lawman of Seaside who has an obvious crush on Judy. Despite having an eye-rolling comedy bit where he keeps drawing attention to Judy’s breasts. He does a great job playing basically the town’s sheriff trying to find reason in an unreasonable town of idiots. There’s a ton of small parts, and all of them have a purpose and are expertly acted, there’s just too many to make note of in this review, but all in all, there are no weak standouts, everything is snug and well performed.
“…probably the most twisted and delightful fairytale film I’ve seen…”
The film has a fairytale-like quality to it, both in dialogue and look. The set pieces are gorgeous, the costumes are fantastic, and the scenery is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. If I had to mark the film down over anything, it’d be the uneven tone. Sometimes it feels like the moments should be serious when they end up comical, and vice versa. There’s a sense of macabre and devilish delight that comes with some of the film’s violent acts, but one instance in particular plays for shock value and it’d be more effective if it was played straight. Another standout with this film is its excellent music score, it doesn’t fit with the time period the film is set in, but the contrast somehow works incredibly well.
I had a blast with Judy and Punch, and I think it’s probably the most twisted and delightful fairytale film I’ve seen in quite some time. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it has a pro-feminine message that’s powerfully threaded throughout the film, and yet it never feels preachy or too self-important. Judy and Punch is at times gut-bustingly hilarious, brutally uncomfortable, and joyously irreverent. If you get a chance, definitely go out of your way to give this a watch.
Judy and Punch (2019) Written and Directed by Mirrah Foulkes. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Benedict Hardie, Gillian Jones, Tom Budge, Lachlan Martin, Virginia Gay. Judy and Punch screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
8.5 out of 10