Aiming to dissect crude entertainment that relies on violence to induce laughter, as well as its repercussions in interpersonal relationships and society at large; Australian actress-turned-director Mirrah Foulkes (“Animal Kingdom“) repurposes the quintessential Punch and Judy puppet show—first performed in England during the 16th century—for a flesh-and-blood iteration where an unwavering woman takes the reins. Her resulting debut effort, “Judy & Punch,” is clear in its intent, but tonally awkward in delivery.
Set in the superstitiously inclined town of Seaside, which is ironically named as it’s far removed from any body of water, this impressively crafted period tragicomedy opens with a superbly arranged presentation of the eponymous couple’s spectacle, in which marionettes use slapstick tricks to amuse the lowbrow attendees.
Taking all the credit for the fruitful evening is Punch (Damon Herriman), an eccentric entertainer who fancies himself the best puppeteer in all the land. In truth, it’s his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska) who merits acclaim. She has a flair for subtly and itches for storytelling freed of physical aggression. A narcissistic par excellence and a brazen misogynist, Punch hampers Judy’s aspirations and relegates her to managerial duties and child-rearing. These, however, are not the worst of his transgressions.
Caught up in a drunken stupor while Judy is out prepping for their next gig, Punch perpetrates an offense so heinous, the only option to spare himself from being hung is to cover his tracks with more brutality and framing his trusting and elderly servants for the crime. Mob mentality rules in Seaside—a place where Stoning Day is a morbidly joyful festivity for anyone not on the receiving end—and justice is swiftly proclaimed by jittery fearmonger Mr. Frankly (Tom Budge) pushing rampant biases as arguments for condemnation.
Considering the seriousness of the topics it addresses, Foulkes’ first directorial project could have found a more direct path to expressing its concerns if made as a straightforward drama. Instead, she instills thorny humor and fantastic ingredients into a potion that never integrates smoothly. Early in the film, a body is thrown out a window in risible fashion, ensuing in an upsetting and puzzling death. Plenty of other such instances, up until the final retribution, deliberately juxtapose the seemingly harmless spirit of the movie with stark carnage to comment on our skewed interpretation of both.
Violent acts in “Judy & Punch” are conveyed humorlessly even if what transpired before or after can be qualified as lighthearted. The savage beating of a woman or the stoning of a group of them are not sugarcoated, but rather bluntly realized. Foulkes’ approach to generating a disconnect between enchanting satire and unflinching bloodshed succeeds at rendering the gruesomeness more visible. It also makes for a perplexing viewing experience because the tonal shifts feel utterly contrived. Still, the mere fact that the director’s objective is decipherable, if not seamless, demonstrates the execution is not entirely flawed.
Last year, Wasikowska starred in the Zellner Brothers’ “Damsel,” which also premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, in a similarly empowering role as part of their darkly comedic Western with a feminist edge. Bodily harm was consistently employed in that movie as shock humor, and even though the actress’ turn was equally as stern, the effect was less jarring. In “Judy & Punch,” Wasikowska’s character remains solemn and determined throughout, but the screenplay doesn’t stay the course, but experiments along the way. She doesn’t break new acting ground, but propels the story into a more coherent direction—as much she is able to.
The final act sees Judy channel Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” when her transformation from theater artist to revenge-seeking heroine is completed, but not before, of course, joining a pack of ostracized fugitives. Her vengeance on the toxic man who wrecked her family is precisely formulated to cause as much emotional as pain and ego damage as possible. Conversely, Herriman’s take on Punch invokes Jack Sparrow’s wackiness and mannerisms in an unflattering style. His on-screen persona exists in direct opposition to Judy: Punch is always trying to charm in order to hide his moral shortcomings. Again, the filmmaker’s intention is relayed, but not for that the film becomes more enjoyable.
In spite of the unfortunate narrative hiccups, Foulkes’ capacity to maneuver a production of this size with numerous costumes, VFX, intricate sets, and a first-rate cast on her first try is undeniable. It’s also her ambition to attempt something with an ambiguous feel that situates the filmmaker as a compelling voice to track in the future. Ultimately, “Judy & Punch” doesn’t hit squarely in the target, but hints at interesting conversations on prejudice, domestic abuse, and powerful individuals lacking integrity. As one watches, and ponders whether to laugh or gasp from one scene to the next, some of these inquiries do emerge strongly from its convoluted haze. [C]