From speculation around Oscar contenders to top 10 listicles, discussion of the “feminist film” has yet to agree on what exactly the label means. Is it mandatory to have women involved behind the camera, or is it enough to have a woman on screen presented the ‘right’ way? (According to Screen Australia, yes, it is.) Should it engage explicitly with ‘feminist’ themes, or does a film do this inherently by being about a woman? Judy & Punch takes these simplistic checklist categorisations and not only runs with them; it pokes fun and critiques them all the while. While its unpredictable shifts from tense domestic drama to cartoonish shock comedy don’t always quite mesh, Mirrah Foulkes’ feature debut as writer-director is in every moment the “bold, loose, big and weird” film she was encouraged to create.
Loosely based on the tradition of Punch and Judy puppet shows which date back to 1600s England, Judy and Punch follows Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (Damon Herriman), who are the puppeteers of their own show. The couple return to Judy’s hometown of Seaside (which is “nowhere near the sea”) to look after their young infant, having finished a tour of their violence-as-comedy puppet show. While Punch is a gregarious showman, it’s Judy’s superior puppeteering and determination which keeps the show running, their marriage intact, and Punch on the straight and narrow.
But being a big fish in a small pond can only sustain Punch’s ego for so long. His need for adulation finds him in the pub as often as it does the theatre, and it’s not long before he’s off the wagon. Unable to remain sober while watching over his own baby, Punch beats Judy apparently to death when confronted about his neglect, dumps her body in the forest, and then pins the murder on the family’s senile manservant and his wife. Miraculously rescued by a nomadic group of outcasts, Judy starts plotting her revenge against her husband and the town which enabled him.
Having previously explored the nuance of social expectations around discussing domestic abuse in her 2016 short Trespass, Foulkes focuses on the ways in which a community can enable, excuse, and even enjoy violent misogyny, particularly when the perpetrator is a celebrity. The fantasy-adjacent Seaside is at once warm and jovial, grimy and unwelcoming, with superstition and distrust always present. It’s also visually compelling, with a deep colour palette and a focus on texture and detail. Similarly inspired by 17th century source material, Foulkes’ debut feature stands assuredly alongside Terry Gilliam’s 13th — The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018) — as a quasi-fantasy absurdist comedy.
The film is not in the business of subtlety. “Are the punches getting too punchy?” Judy asks after a show, in case anyone was confused as to the central dilemma of the film. Yet overall the mix of dark human drama and caricature is an entertaining one, and the cast commit wholly to the distorted reality of Seaside. Mia Wasikowska brings both tenderness and determined rage, effortlessly navigating the film’s many tonal shifts. Damon Herriman’s abusive puppet-master leans towards the cartoonishly monstrous, but is more frightening when grounded as the prototypical charming narcissist. Benedict Hardie is simultaneously endearing and enraging as Seaside’s cowardly new police constable, the ultimate male ‘ally’, unwilling to risk his own position or rock the boat in any way ― at the cost of justice.
The film’s offbeat comedic streak is maintained throughout its running time, providing welcome levity but also undermining its own conclusion. Judy’s return to Seaside begins as a righteous crusade, as she rides out of the forest on her high horse. But a double somersault onto the village’s gallows ― complete with superhero three-point landing ― hurls the finale beyond comedic quirk and into pastiche. The unconvincing speech which follows (explaining that misogyny is bad and wrong, making the perpetrators look a bit embarrassed) is a weak ending for an otherwise strong narrative. Even with some Pythonesque gore, Judy’s final stand against the distrustful and misogynistic townsfolk is a conclusion too neat for a film so unapologetically messy.
Yet even when the movie has ended, the credits are not without their own puzzling choices. Accompanied by the bombast of Kirin J Callinan’s Life is Life, the track is perhaps one last moment of cultural commentary, or a final joke, or both. What does it mean for a film specifically highlighting the damage wrought by misogynist male artists and those who support them to be played off by the bloke who got his dick out at the ARIAs? Judy & Punch’s layering of comedy above and below its dramatic core makes it difficult to tell.
Perhaps the joke is the very idea that anyone should be looking to retellings of 17th century puppet shows for cues on how to deal with very real human violence. Sometimes a film explores patriarchal violence and how others not only condone but benefit from it, peeling back the layers of complicity within a community. Sometimes that film also just wants to be funny.
A visually lush, heightened revenge fable with some tonal dissonance and a somewhat unsatisfying ending, Judy & Punch is nevertheless an entertaining and self-assured writer-director debut. Knowingly ridiculous, contradictory, unpredictable, unbelievable ― the film may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s well worth your time.
Judy & Punch is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Agnes Forrester is a screen writer and critic based in Melbourne, Australia. She thinks videogame movies are terrible, yet loves them all anyway. You can block her on Twitter at @cartridgepink.