* * * *
After three highly regarded short films, Mirrah Foulkes announces herself as a feature auteur of serious talent and limitless potential with Judy and Punch, a film whose great artfulness is only outdone by its sheer, breath-taking originality. So many movies are formulaic, copies of copies of copies; Foulkes’ astonishing debut is as fresh as the Jacarandas blooming all over Sydney, and, in its weird way, just as beautiful.
Foulkes takes the puppet show franchise Punch and Judy, which has been codified illustratively since the 1770s and in script form since around 1830, and riffs on it, deconstructs it, pulls and punches at it, and ultimately uses it to say something profound, resonant and topical. Her script is a work of deep and intellectually rigorous imagination, surprising, humorous, dark, whimsical and fantastical, pungent and dank.
Damon Herriman, topping a year of spectacular performances, plays the odious Punch, proprietor of the puppet show, husband to Judy (Mia Wasikowska), father to their baby, drunkard, scoundrel, charmer and fool. They live in ‘Seaside’, outside of ‘the big smoke’, where once they were feted, until Punch’s drinking took hold. Now Punch wants his status back, but there’s a bottle in every corner, and his baby’s a burden, too.
Judy and Punch takes as its source material puppet show scripts from around the 1800s, and all the characters associated with them – the policeman, the dog, the mistress, the hangman, the doctor, even the crocodile – are all here, superbly layered into the rich stew of Foulkes’ script. But if the script is terrific, her direction meets it for thrilling theatricality and innovation, most boldly and excitingly in how she plays with tone. Working closely with a most incredible score by François Tétaz, Foulkes ironically undermines the film’s frequent dark sequences with vaudevillian comic panache, to achieve, against great odds, the strange effect of those truly weird original scripts come to life. Punch and Judy, the 1800s puppet show, asked you to laugh as Punch beat his wife; now Foulkes plays those scenes as intended, as clowning, exposing them for what they are: embedded icons of domestic abuse, perversely seared into our collective consciousness as children’s entertainment.