I doubt there are fans of XVI century puppet theatre tradition dying for a live-action adaptation of their favourite characters. But in case there’s someone like that out there, and they unsuspectingly stumbled upon Mirrah Foulkes’ debut feature, then they should’ve paid attention to the little clue in the title – this is the point of view of Judy, and you can expect that that just doesn’t sound as fun, does it?
Set in a sort of idealised Ye Olde Europe, Judy & Punch re-imagines the original characters as the artists behind the original puppet show. Punch (Damon Harriman), the husband, is the self-confessed genius still waiting for his break in the city, and Judy (Mia Wasikowska) is the subservient wife who enables, supports him, and takes care of their baby and household. It does well fleshing out the archetypal characters of the puppet show into this version of the real world, but it quickly feeds us with a good dose of harsh reality – the funny over-the-top antics of Punch as a puppet, turn into domestic violence on different point of view. A clear and understood point that the film expertly announces within its first five minutes, and then barely explores it in the remainder 95.
As per the original, Punch kills the baby, and goes through a series of hoops and turns trying to get away with the murder and in time to present his show to a talent scout from ‘The Big Smoke’ (I’m guessing London, though it’s strange as the city would only get this nickname after the Industrial Revolution). Unlike the show, though, Judy survives Punch and finds subterfuge with a group of outcast women in the forest, and from there we follow her journey as she regains her confidence that she had lost after years of marriage with a serial narcissistic abuser, and starts plotting her vengeance. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have the cinematic flare to represent this in a compelling way, so while Harriman seems to be having fun playing the villain, paradigm of irresponsible toxic masculinity, Wasikowska spends broods around the fire camp with her new found sisters, or broods around town like a haunted spirit. There’s a moment she has a vision in a lake featuring a crocodile, which just comes out as another opportunity to add another element from the original play, within a completely different context.
The problem is there are good ideas here; Mirrah Foulkes is brave enough to go after the west’s tradition of normalising violence against women in our storytelling. And she does it in her first film. But I suspect she wrote down all the topics and ideas that this story could pursue, and decided to include them all in the final script. As a result, the film goes from tragedy to comedy in a decidedly clunky way. From caricature to a strong dramatic point with no segue. Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to do something like this – others have done it in the past – but it requires more experience than just good intentions.
The baby death scene, for example, is set up like a tragedy, but ends just short of a drum rim shot. Surely this would’ve been an opportunity to continue the idea of real-world consequences of Punch’s violence, like it had been set up before. Instead it felt like a remnant of an old draft when this story was going to be a completely different film.
This inconsistency hurts Wasikowska more who doesn’t get to show off her skill for the most part. That is until the end when she’s given an empowering speech that is more directed at us, the audience, then the people in the town. But like the rest of the film, it’s a good idea that lacks the craft to work, and instead of being the triumphant, world-changing, moment it could’ve been, it leaves us asking that question that no filmmaker wants to be asked – who is this film made for? It’s too violent, and serious to be for the children who react to the puppet show. It lacks subtleties to be for adults. Those who could listen to the message have tuned out halfway through, and us who agree with it are still hanging around waiting for one last piece of unexpected truth that never comes.
And this is not a lot to ask for a film about a silly puppet show. There are important things being said here, but they get they lost in the unnecessary complexity of this story.
A twist on a classic story of leisurely sexist violence and glorification of toxic masculinity? There’s a philosophical take we definitely need to confront…
But good intentions don’t make a good film. It just a little bit of a mess that needed several redrafts and just a pinch of focus.