In the town of Seaside, Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (Damon Herriman) — a violent drunk — are trying to bring back their puppet show. But when Punch commits an abominable crime, Judy sets out to seek revenge on her deplorable husband.
It’s girls to the front for Judy & Punch, Mirrah Foulkes’ eccentric yet ambitious directorial debut that sees a toxic folk tale receive a feminist shake-up. An unsubtle yet timely rumination on fear driving destruction, the actor-turned-director uses Seaside to cast a wider spotlight on the world at large, with its pantomime-esque residents enforcing mob mentality to drive a growing wedge between themselves and the unknown.
Playing to the booze-fuelled patrons of the local tavern, Punch and Judy perform a poetic if problematic puppet show — Judy undoubtedly the more talented of the two, but content in sidestepping the spotlight in the name of her husband’s ego and spending more time with their baby.
Judy’s complex trajectory requires both stoicism and charisma which Wasikowska delivers easily.
When Punch’s unspeakable crime is committed in a bizarre whirlwind of terror and slapstick comedy, Judy is ostracised and the film spins on its heel, evolving into a revenge romp for a modern audience that reclaims masculine power and places it into Judy’s capable hands.
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Wasikowska — who has built a steadfast reputation as the bristling ingénue in Crimson Peak and Stoker — here gets to flex her action credentials in the film’s second half, set amidst an underground movement reminiscent of a medieval Mad Max: Fury Road. Judy’s complex trajectory requires both stoicism and charisma which Wasikowska delivers easily, matched by Herriman’s slippery charms and callous underbelly.
The world that Foulkes has created around them is enterprising — a lush, fantastical landscape that refuses to be tethered to reality save for some modern dialogue and an eclectic electronic score from composer François Tétaz.
It shoulders a few tonal misfires — the Monty Python-type novelty doesn’t quite suit the dismal misfortune that Judy and her band of outcasts suffer at the hands of their small-minded community. For its aesthetic flair and well-timed criticism of traditional values, however, this is a commendable debut that gives its leading actress something to sink her teeth into.
A risky project for Foulkes to make as her first feature, Judy & Punch ventures a little too far into troubled waters with its comedic handling of heavy matter, but shows promise in the woman holding the strings.