Turning the traditional story of Punch and Judy on its head with a joyously feminist reinterpretation, debut writer and director Mirrah Foulkes offers an accomplished delight with Judy & Punch.
Set in the anarchic and outlandish town of Seaside – which, ironically, is located nowhere near the coast – puppeteers Judy and Punch are trying to resurrect their marionette show. Punch (Damon Herriman) has driving ambition and craves fame, demanding to be in the limelight at all times, but the real talent with the puppets is Judy (Mia Wasikowska), his long-suffering wife, who quietly crafts the playful genius behind the scenes.
With a penchant for alcohol, the notoriously violent puppet Punch controls onstage mirrors his drunken rage offstage, but away from the theatre, his hands do far more focused harm to Judy. The infamous misogynistic abuse by the puppet has nothing on the live-action Punch, and his drunken violent fury leads to an ill-fated turn of events, with Judy the terrorised victim. But this Judy is no punch-bag. With everything in her life lost, including the elderly servant Scaramouche (Terry Norris) and his wife Maid Maude (Brenda Palmer), who’ve effectively been her family, and the town’s well-meaning policeman Derek Fairweather (Benedict Hardie) not keeping local sexist bully Mr Frankly (Tom Budge) in check, Judy seeks to right the wrongs enacted by Punch. Alongside a team of outcast women she meets in the forest, Judy makes a plan to get revenge, which means she will eventually have to face the misogynist men who rule the town.
If this makes Judy & Punch sound like a serious drama, it’s really not. Foulkes cleverly turns a traditional story into a boldly crafted, irreverent and darkly funny fairy-tale, blending elements of fantasy and comedy into a vibrant – and hilariously absurd – narrative. Flipping the usual men-as-saviours narrative on its head, Judy & Punch becomes a ruthless female-driven search for retribution; a feminist retaliation to counter male violence against women, and one which will make female audience members (and some men) cheer out loud.
With quite a simple plot, it’s not a particularly challenging or unpredictable storyline, but it’s elevated by great performances, refreshingly dry humour, bold cinematography by Stefan Duscio, and a vibrant original score by François Tétaz. I did feel Judy & Punch would have benefitted from a little more backstory on the forest-dwelling outcasts and needed a little more depth to the characters, but overall it packs a powerful punch. Foulkes clearly has a deft touch, lifting the film with daring wit and polished direction. For a debut, this is some achievement, resulting in a unique concoction of the genre to create a fantastical and shocking tale with a darkly funny twist.
The 63rd BFI London Film Festival runs from 2-13 October 2019. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack