Mia Wasikowska as Judy
Damon Herriman as Punch
Benedict Hardie as Derrick Fairweather
Tom Budge as Mr. Frankly
Gillian Jones as Dr. Goodtime
Eddie Baroo as Nordic Man
Virginia Gay as Ma
Kiruna Stamell as Mavis
Lucy Velik as Polly
Terry Norris as Scaramouche
Brenda Palmer as Maid Maude
Written and directed by Mirrah Foulkes
Judy & Punch Review:
The characters of Punch and Judy are two of the most iconic and long-running in performing arts history, but also two of the most controversial as the perpetuation of domestic abuse in all of its shows. The exact origin of the two is not really known and though debuting writer/director Mirrah Foulkes doesn’t necessarily present her film, Judy & Punch, as an origin story, she does find a way to show the all-too-real connections they have to the real world.
In the anarchic town of Seaside, nowhere near the sea, puppeteers Judy and Punch are trying to resurrect their marionette show. The show is a hit due to Judy’s superior puppeteering, but Punch’s driving ambition and penchant for whisky lead to an inevitable tragedy that Judy must avenge in a dynamic live-action reinterpretation of the famous 16th-century puppet show.
From the opening moments of a mysterious hooded figure making her way through the disheveled and drunk-infested town to the end credits, Foulkes right away shows an incredible grip on stylish direction, allowing the camera to capture some of the more unique locations and diverse characters scattered throughout. Much like the puppet shows the titular married couple put on, the Australian actress has a keen sense of framing every shot, keeping the lens at a good distance during some of the brighter and more comedic moments while bringing it in accordingly close during some of the more powerful moments, helping to keep audiences invested even when the film occasionally stumbles.
The script takes its time accordingly in helping develop the devolving relationship between the two and the aftermath of their tragedy, but the problem with it comes in the film’s handling of events post-tragedy. Everything leading up prior feels like a dark comedy, one in which audiences can laugh while still feeling concerned for the future of its titular couple, but the latter half of the film loses this comedic touch and strictly goes for brutish satire and heavy-handed drama in a manner that’s not as appealing. Even when we find ourselves disgusted by Punch’s actions or behaviors towards his wife and family, we could at least typically laugh it off or feel comfort in the enduring nature of Judy, but this tone vanishes in a way that makes audiences appreciate what came before and dislike what’s offered in the latter half.
This may be a story that requires plenty of hard-hitting drama and timely exploration of domestic abuse and feminism, and it touches nicely upon these themes, but when similar period pieces such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite can keep its darkly comedic undercurrent throughout, it makes it a bit disappointing to see this film falter in the latter half after such a promising balance in the opening.
Even when the film’s tonal balance keeps the film from reaching its ambitious heights, it’s carried by two brilliantly committed performances from Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman. The 30-year-old Australian actress has proven herself a worthy performer in a variety of roles over the years, but this feels like one of her most powerful turns, in a role that gives her some of the best and most powerful agency of any character she’s portrayed. Herriman is great at playing goofy and misunderstood characters, but he shines even brighter when offered the chance to play someone truly unlikable and he’s allowed the opportunity to tap into this manic goodness with Punch, occasionally letting audiences empathize with him before flipping the switch back to an easy-to-hate misogynist.
Judy & Punch may not land as evenly as it could’ve and finds itself dragging in its second half, but thanks to some strong character development, a fresh and fairly funny take on the iconic characters and strong performances from Wasikowska and Herriman, it still proves a mostly entertaining and powerful debut from Foulkes that sets her up as a promising talent behind the camera.