“It’s getting punchier all the time.”
“Happy Stoning Day!”
“Would I risk a hiding serving you anything but [sausages]?”
The world of Judy & Punch is saturated with violence, like sawdust soaking up blood. In the town of Seaside (which, the title card pithily informs us, is “nowhere near the seaside”), violence is both a form of entertainment and an underlying current of every conversation.
In the opening scene, villagers cheer wildly at a puppet show where a man beats a woman, a policeman and a devil in short succession. But our heroine, Judy (Mia Wasikowska), expresses ambivalence about this violence.
The puppet show, which she runs with her husband, Punch (Damon Herriman, in his third great role as a scheming misogynist this year), is getting increasingly vicious, she tells him. “It’s what the audience wants,” he informs her, and dreamily imagines an audience cheering for him.
Punch is immediately established as a man with a streak of calculated brutality – twirling Judy just hard enough that she almost hits the wall when he lets go, while making it appear accidental. Their touring puppet show isn’t doing so well anymore, which is why they’re in Seaside, Judy’s hometown, living in her family’s old manor. The violence-hungry Seasiders provide a reliable audience, but Punch isn’t satisfied. His flashes of temper and frequent drunkenness don’t bode well for Judy and their baby.
Judy may be uneasy about the excessive violence in the puppet show, but she’s clearly not immune to the culture of Seaside. She turns away from the town’s Stoning Day – where alleged witches are executed by the other townspeople – quietly deciding not to take part, but she then entertains a group of children with a magic trick that macabrely makes it seem she’s squashed a live bird between her hands. Later, alone with her daughter while sweet music plays, she does shadow puppets for her: a bunny rabbit and a fox, the latter of which chomps off the ears of the former. She condemns Seaside’s violence, while being unable to see the ways in which she’s influenced by it.
Judy’s complex relationship to violence is mirrored by the film itself. With its black comedy, quirky side-characters and absurd/horrifying rituals, Mirrah Foulkes’ film is Australian Gothic by way of Yorgos Lanthimos, exquisitely designed and occasionally stomach-churningly uncomfortable. The stoning, for example, is filmed dispassionately, with a sickening inescapability.
By contrast, the act that starts the narrative – Punch killing their baby through drunken carelessness – is filmed from a distance, diminishing the abject horror of what he does. The scene is slapstick in its execution; indeed, many audience members at my screening let out guilt-tinged laughs. But when Judy comes home, reacts with grief-stricken rage, and Punch nearly beats her to death, the violence happens off screen, without a hint of comedy.
This tonal inconsistency is frustrating if you’re looking for a definitive message: what does the film want you to think about violence? Is it meant to be funny, or not? But Foulkes avoids simply telling you what to think, for the most part. That the opening credits play against a stage backdrop to the sound of applause is a clue that the film wants to raise questions about performance and entertainment. To go for the tempting puppetry metaphor, Foulkes drops us into her scenes and then tugs at our strings, pushing us towards laughter, shock or horror at her whim. At its best, the film makes being an audience member feel thrillingly out of control.
The story veers into a revenge tale after Punch thinks he’s killed Judy and hides her body in the woods. She is then discovered by a group of matriarchal misfits – a Mad Max: Fury Road-esque commune hiding from the witch-hunts of Seaside. When Judy awakens, she swears bloody revenge, a sentiment discouraged by the commune. Here, we get some of the film’s most interesting exchanges about violence, as Judy insists, “I can’t let him get away with it, it isn’t right” and the commune’s respected healer, Dr Goodtime (Gillian Jones) counters with, “You think it matters what’s right?” and “Just keep moving forward and hope the rest of the world catches up.”
However, the film can’t quite decide if Judy is resorting to revenge out of maternal grief, or if her propensity for violence was always there. On the one hand, there’s the aforementioned morbid children’s entertainment involving dead birds and earless rabbits. On the other hand, Judy is initially shown to be squeamish about skinning rabbits for dinner – but after her assault, she determinedly butchers some at the commune with steely-eyed fury.
On an improbable third hand, there’s a later montage contrasting Punch yelling at his new girlfriend while she cooks him breakfast, and Judy doing slow-motion tai chi in a flowing white nightgown, suggesting she’s escaped the world of violent masculinity. But maybe this inconsistency is the point – if nothing else, Judy is messy and complex, in the way that many real-life survivors are.
It’s this complexity that marks Judy and Punch as distinctive in a sea of wronged-woman-seeks-revenge movies. And for this reason, the climax, which prioritises flashiness over nuance, is somewhat disappointing. What had previously been a gleefully unruly narrative is tied up with a neat bow, and the themes of the film are spelled out – as is the relevance to 2019 politics – with a fourth wall-breaking lecture.
After 80 minutes of chaotically pulling at our strings, Foulkes now guides us to the message. It’s a shame, because the film is strongest when it shows rather than tells: a fleeting moment where Judy clutches a stoning rock in one hand and her baby in the other, and the baby touches the rock with curiosity, is far more affecting than any public service announcement.
But even though Judy and Punch doesn’t quite stick the landing, it’s a wild, thoroughly captivating ride. By turns conjuring shock, cringing and riotous laughter, Mirrah Foulkes has created something unlike any other Australian film this year. I’d suggest we applaud her – but her film has made that very gesture all too ominous.
Judy and Punch is in cinemas from Thursday, 21 November.