Judy and Punch: Fascinating weaving of myth and gritty reality

Review: Mia Wasikowska has never been better in a raging, uncontained performance

Judy and Punch: the jokes are consistently underscored by a sense of ancient menace

Film Title: Judy & Punch

Director: Mirrah Foulkes

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Tom Budge, Benedict Hardie, Lucy Velik, Gillian Jones, Terry Norris, Brenda Palmer

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 105 min

Fri, Nov 22, 2019, 05:30

   

The cinema hasn’t had much to do with the bizarre seaside entertainment that, taking equivocal lines on filicide, spousal abuse and crocodile attacks, entertained so many potentially psychotic English children at miserable seaside resorts for centuries. Tony Hancock dampened the appropriately cheerless The Punch and Judy Man in 1963, but nobody else has tested the puppet show’s potential.

Until now. What a fascinating piece of work Mirrah Foulkes’s debut feature turns out to be. You could describe the film as an origin story for Punch and Judy. That does not, however, get across its delectable oddness. All the crucial elements of the genre are in place – sausages, dogs, policemen, crocodiles, sticks – in a film that balances playfulness with a profound concern about the evil men do to women.

The consistently first-rate Mia Wasikowska plays Judy, a puppeteer, stuck in a rural nowhere, who juggles domestic duties with avoiding slugs from her husband Punch (Damon Herriman). It worked out nicely (or was it planned?) that, following the film’s premiere at Sundance, Herriman was seen as Charles Manson in both Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He is the contemporary personification of violent misogyny.

The off-centre, post-medieval community they inhabit carries some suggestions of Terry Gilliam, but, in its weaving of myth in with gritty reality, it is, perhaps, closer to the experiments of Angela Carter. The attempt to place the environment within inverted commas is assisted by the decision to make mention of England while mixing Celtic accents in with the Cockney. Judy and Punch are convincingly Irish. Other citizens are loudly Scottish. These cruelties are universal.

Mirrah Foulkes, hitherto a busy actor, pitches much of the film as a comedy, but the jokes are consistently underscored by a sense of ancient menace. Women get stoned. When the baby goes missing, the drunk Punch glibly remarks: “I suppose we’ll just move in with our lives.”

Judy is the only person who recognises the moral insanity and Wasikowska has never been better as an avenger struggling to attract allies. It’s a raging, uncontained performance in a film that balances its anger with beautiful images and caustic humour.

That’s the way to do it. That’s the way to do it.

Opens on November 22nd