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Judy and Punch

The Alice in Underland movies are simultaneously the best and the worst thing to happen to Mia Wasikowska. She broke out in a big way with the otherwise godawful Tim Burton remake of 2010, starring in a wide variety of mainstream and arthouse hits. For the first half of the 2010s, it seemed like Wasikowska had a bright future as one of our next great up-and-coming starlets. Then the Alice in Underland sequel tanked in 2016 and it’s like we’ve barely heard from her since.

Curiosity recently led me to Wasikowska’s IMDb page, to see what she’d been up to. Imagine my pleasant surprise to see that she had recently starred in Judy and Punch, a reimagining of the classical Punch and Judy tale. And it’s the writing/directing debut of Mirrah Foulkes, who’s previously made a respectable career as a TV actor. Color me intrigued.

(Side note: Credits for story writing and producing were noticeably given to Tom and Lucy Punch. I looked it up, and these are in fact actual people. Tom Punch was the chief creative and commercial officer for Vice Studios at the time of development, and Lucy Punch has a long and admirable — I’d dare say underappreciated — career as a comedic character actor. I can’t find any confirmation as to how or if the both of them are related. “Siblings” would be my best guess, but I can’t be sure.)

Punch and Judy (respectively played by Damon Herriman and Wasikowska) are themselves a married pair of genius puppeteers with their own massively successful Punch and Judy puppet show. I might add that Punch (the puppeteer, I mean) is typically seen with a cane, and the two have a baby together. Later on, we’re introduced to the bumbling constable (Derrick Fairweather, played by Benedict Hardie) and Punch’s mistress (Pretty Polly, played by Lucy Velik), so all the traditional elements are more or less in place.

This particular take on Punch (again, the pupeteer) is your typical tortured artistic genius. He loves his craft, he’s disappointed that it isn’t taking in more money, he’s always after a bigger stage to perform on… you know the type. Oh, and it’s also worth mentioning that he’s a recurring alcoholic who can never keep his multiple promises to stay sober.

Anyway, while Punch is the headliner, it’s clear that Judy is at least his equal in regards to puppeteering talent. In fact, given her flair for stage magic and storytelling, she clearly shows a greater love and mastery toward stagecraft in general. Though of course Judy is encouraged to hide her talent, for fear that her stage magic may be confused for actual witchcraft. Even so, Judy is very much about the childlike sense of joy provided by a good story, that wonderful sense of being transported by a fantastic show.

As such, Judy bristles at her husband’s artistic choices, specifically with regards to making the show so violent. But of course slapstick comedy with puppets is what a Punch and Judy show is all about. And anyway, reasons Punch himself, the violence is what the people want.

Indeed, the town of Seaside (which is nowhere near any actual sea) is quickly shown to be populated with provincial morons who drink to excess, hold public boxing matches in the town square, and use fear of witchcraft as an excuse to stone women. Thus the film is established early on as a feminist take that examines our cultural fascination with violence, particularly violence as entertainment. Also, the “stone the witches” bit plays into violence as punishment, weighing slow and careful justice against swift and brash mob rule. Not bad.

Anyway, the plot begins in earnest when Judy steps out for a brief moment, leaving the infant daughter in Punch’s care. Long story short, hijinks ensue and the baby is accidentally thrown out the window to her doom. Judy is of course pissed off at discovering this, she argues with Punch, and he gets hot-tempered enough to beat her to death. He even utters the classic “That’s the way to do it!” catchphrase. Punch then lies and cheats his way into framing the servants (Maude and Scaramouche, respectively played by Brenda Palmer and Terry Norris), thus escaping any kind of consequence for the double homicide. So far, so’s in keeping with the traditional story.

But here’s the twist: Judy doesn’t die. In fact, she’s discovered by a roving caravan of misfits and outsiders (the kind who would be swiftly executed by our town of provincial witch-fearing idiots) and grudgingly nursed back to health.

Of course Judy’s first inclination is to go back and seek bloody revenge against her husband. Trouble is, she can’t come back from the dead without getting stoned by the paranoid mob as a witch or a demon. Even worse, she could unwittingly expose the whole caravan that rescued her, all of whom would be in danger of getting slaughtered by our village of murder-happy knuckleheads.

All of this circles back around to the notion of justice, and whether or not it really means anything in an unfair world. Then again, given Punch’s own downward spiral fueled by guilt and booze, maybe a life well lived is the best revenge in this particular case.

Damon Herriman does most of the heavy lifting here, running the gamut from loving husband to toxic bastard to manipulative liar to grief-struck wretch. Punch (by which I mean the classical Punch) is an archetypal trickster, so he calls for an actor who can swap from one face to the other on a dime, and Herriman delivers. Alas, Mia Wasikowska doesn’t get nearly so much to do, as she spends most of her running time in convalescence and weighing her options for vengeance. Still, she’s a perfectly charming lead and Wasikowska is more than capable of selling the character’s pain and righteous fury. Nobody else in the supporting cast is worthy of any particular note, but they’re all serviceable.

The writing is there and the premise is there, but it unravels quite a bit at the climax. Without going too deep into details, a character gets this huge speech about how all the townfolk are needlessly persecuting their own, turning against each other for no reason at all and living under the perpetual fear that any one of them could be next.

Leaving aside how preachy and blunt the speech is, it feels a step removed from the established themes and the source material. What exactly did Punch and Judy ever have to do with discrimination and persecuting anyone who was the least bit different? It would’ve made a lot more sense for the speech to condemn the townsfolk for their bloodlust, rushing to kill their own because it’s easy and fun. The moment was right there and I have no idea how the filmmakers could’ve whiffed it that hard.

Which brings me to the movie’s biggest problem: Its direction.

The score is a huge problem, bouncing across so many disparate styles that the composer can’t seem to pick a mood and stay with it. Likewise, the characters are all clearly designed for heightened melodrama — as with the source material — but they’re not always presented that way and the performances toward that end are inconsistent.

I could see what the filmmakers were going for here. This movie needed a director who could balance a heightened story with a grounded revisionist take. Someone like Terry Gilliam (The Brothers Grimm, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) or Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse). Hell, even Osgood Perkins got nearer the mark with Gretel and Hansel. Alas, while Mirrah Foulkes gave it a noble try, she simply wasn’t capable of directing this project with the balance that it needed.

She did a better job of it than Benh Zeitlin did with Wendy, I’ll give her that.

Judy and Punch is one of those movies far better in theory than execution. There are a lot of great ideas in here, the two lead actors were elegantly cast, and there’s too much effort on display to simply write off. I genuinely like what the filmmakers were going for, with regard to a feminist take on “Punch and Judy” that uses the source material to comment on our strange need for violence.

Alas, Judy spends too much screentime in bed, recovering from her beating at the hands of her husband, while the husband himself is engineering his own downfall. The movie deflates through the back half, all the way until it loses the point completely by the climax.

The film starts out so strong, I wish I had liked it more. As it is, I regret that I can only give it a barely passing grade. Check it out if you’re curious.

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