The directorial debut of Australian actress Mirrah Foulkes, Judy & Punch is one of those bizarre, quirky indie films that will leave you scratching your head and wondering whether or not you like it, even as you admire the heady, avant-garde filmmaking at its core. I’m pretty sure I liked it, but this one’s going to have to marinate a while.
To be sure, there is plenty here worth admiring, including a powerhouse performance from Mia Wasikowska (where has she been lately?) as the battered and bruised better half of the titular puppeteering duo. And Foulkes’s direction (as well as her whack-a-doo script) certainly keeps things interesting nearly every step of the way.
Set during Elizabethan times, the film picks up with Punch (Damon Herriman) and Judy putting on a show for the bawdy folks of Seaside, England (which we’re told is, aptly enough, nowhere near the sea). The crowd eats it up, but Judy’s furrowed brow suggests something is rotten. Turns out, it’s her thraldom in an abusive relationship; Punch is a misogynistic alcoholic only concerned with catching the eye of talent scouts whose approval will allow him to leave his dungheap of a village far behind.
When Judy leaves their newborn behind with Punch one afternoon in order to run a few errands, it doesn’t take long for him to snatch a tipple. And it takes even less time for him to forget the child and eventually bring about the tyke’s death (in what is easily the most simultaneously horrifying and hilarious scene put on film so far this year). When Judy returns, things only get worse, leaving her to spend the rest of the film plotting crafty revenge on her schmuck husband.
As the beating heart at the center of the film, Wasikowska offers up a career-best performance full of strength, determination, and vitality. And Harriman, even as the consummate villain, may just make you stand up and applaud. The loudest kudos, though, go to Foulkes herself, who has not only created a film but a world that will stay on your mind long after. (Anywhere you can get twin urchins with the names “Pancake” and “Flea” is a memorable world indeed.)
A delightfully anachronistic presentation (a Leonard Cohen ballad and a word-for-word swath of dialogue from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator both feature prominently), it’s safe to say you’ve not seen the likes of Judy & Punch anytime recently, if at all. There’s no doubt that it takes a little getting used to, but the end result is a highly entertaining and ultimately satisfying film, the likes of which we could use more of.
Well, heck—looks as though I’ve gone and talked myself right into it.