In the town of Seaside – nowhere near the ocean – Judy and Punch entertain their audience with a marionette show. While Judy (Mia Wasikowska) is by far the more talented puppeteer, it is Punch (Damon Herriman) that has captured the audience’s affections. When Punch’s drinking problem becomes too great to control, it sparks a tragedy with ongoing consequences.
Punch & Judy is, as you probably know, a 17th century traditional puppet show, inspired by Italy’s commedia del arte movement. Punch and Judy are a married couple with a baby. Punch beats Judy, and negligently murders their baby – then murders Judy. He also kills a policeman, a crocodile, and ultimately the devil himself. This is, of course, all played out for an audience of young children. It is absurd and also rather awful – and perfect fodder for a similarly absurd but absolutely wonderful movie.
Mirrah Faulkes’ feature directorial debut is a remarkable achievement in Australian cinema, adopting a setting and tone that simply does not occur that often in the local industry. It is incredibly difficult to pinpoint: funny enough that you might accept it as a comedy, but also serious enough that it could be a drama, and then also intense and violent enough to be a thriller. Its clearly fictional setting and weirdly vague time period suggest some kind of folkloric fantasy, yet there’s no supernatural or unearthly content at all. It is, all in all, Punch & Judy redressed and expanded to self-aware and stylistic extremes. I found it brilliantly entertaining.
Its blended period setting allows for sumptuous costumes and some great production design, and it is all so elusively constructed that it can freely explore social issues without having them pinpointed on a single context or real-life incident. Faulkes’ Seaside is a extraordinarily patriarchal environment: religiously conservative, and misoygnistic to the point of hysteria. It is deeply funny, but laced with a very pointed humour.
The emotional tone of the piece keeps shifting, which only adds to the jumbled genre style of old-time theatre, where a Shakespeare play might include murder, violence, romance, comedy, and even a dance at the end. As in the old Punch & Judy shows, Punch does accidentally murder his own infant son – and it is played as broad farce. Later, when in a rage he murders Judy, the tone contrasts sharply; it is a moment of genuine, awful horror. The rest of the film simply chooses its own tone from scene to scene. Once the audience aligns themselves to the story’s volatile nature, it’s a pleasant ride.
This is very deliberately Judy’s story, hence the swap-around of title, and Mia Wasikowska is in top form throughout. She has always been a promising actor, through both Australian and American films, but it really does feel as if she has shifted her process up a level. To my mind it is her finest performance to date. As Punch, Damon Herriman (The Nightingale) combines a pathetic drunkenness with an innate menace to great effect.
It is well worth tracking down this film on home video or an available streaming service and seeing Judy & Punch for yourself. It is an excellent and inventive film in its own right, and also a sign of just how inventive and outside the box Australian cinema can be.