Sunday 24 November 2019

Judy And Punch

A Stoning For Your Sins

Judy And Punch
2019 Australia Directed by Mirrah Foulkes
UK cinema release print.

Judy And Punch is one of those rare movies that look really interesting when you see the trailer and then, when you see the film itself, turns out to be exactly that... a real corker of a movie.

The film is not, as you may possibly be expecting, a true history of the story behind the much loved Punch & Judy shows still performed to this day... instead, it’s a fictional portrayal of two people who have invented the concept for this reality... a reality which really is as pleasingly tenuous, I would have to conclude by the conclusion of the story, as the little vignettes which play out in their puppet show.

Set in the 17h Century in a little village called Seaside (which, the inter-title explains, is nowhere near the sea), this stars the always incredible and talented Mia Wasikowska as Judy, puppeteer extraordinaire and her ‘domestic abuse prone’ husband and writer/puppeteer Punch, played by Damon Herriman (who recently played Charlie Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood although, it has to be said, he’s far more effectively an unintentional villain as Mr. Punch). These two actors, more than ably supported by their co-stars, pretty much carry the film and it has to be said their performances here are astonishing. Wasikowska as the persevering wife and mother of Punch’s child who turns into a ‘not quite classic’ version of the female revenge figure by the end of the film is totally believable and this character is just the kind of role she thrives on. Herriman was surprisingly good as Punch, playing a drunk and short tempered, abusive man in a way which lets you understand where he is coming from in his pursuit of his basest instincts while still coming off as totally unsympathetic... and also he somehow manages to look and feel very much like the puppet he is named after too, with not a swazzle in sight.

The film opens strongly with a performance given by Judy and Punch of their puppet show which is followed the next day by a public stoning of three female victims in the village which everyone attends.... Mr. Punch is given the honour of casting the first stone. This immediately sets up the period with its echoes of witchcraft and the ruthless violence punctuating the times and, although the film is shot through with a very dark humour, the grimness of the situations throughout are very sobering and the bleakness tends to dispel the underlying comedy before it can take hold. This is not to say the film isn’t entertaining... it is and I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen but... expect to be in for a dark time with this one.

Writer/director Mirrah Foulkes, who is perhaps best known as an actress herself (appearing in things like The Crown), smartly plays with your expectations of the basic anchor points of a famous Punch and Judy tale, bringing in key elements like the dog, the sausages and, of course, their baby. However, she does manage to play with these expectations so that, although the tent poles of this popular entertainment show are met, they don’t necessarily come in the obvious manner. For instance... and I don’t think this is really a spoiler because it’s made implicit in the trailer... everyone pretty much knows that ‘something’ is going to happen to the baby, so Foulkes teases the audience with the threat of an open fire and toys with the elements she’s set up in, actually, much the same way a horror movie might set up a fake scare before bringing on the actual jump moment shortly after. When something does, indeed, happen to the baby it’s perhaps not that surprising but still... it’s an effective (perhaps even visually poetic) moment which leaves a lasting impression.

Okay.. so lets talk about the violence because I’m seeing people saying its a violent movie and... well it’s not actually violent at all... at least not in terms of what you actually see on screen. Asides from a long shot during the stoning near the start of the film, for instance, every act of violence as far as I could tell is kept just out of the view of the camera. Instead, this film uses a more the impressionistic version of violence which is, probably, much more potent in that your imagination fills in the blanks just at the moment where, say, a Dario Argento movie would not cut away (I’m thinking about a specific scene in Tenebrae now, reviewed here... but I’m not going to say what because I’m trying to make this review spoiler free). Instead, we are left with the camera looking closely at the aftermath of the violence in most cases, which is again very grim and shows exactly what has taken place. The method of justice that Judy metes out at the end of the movie, for example, is something which you can guess is coming but the aftermath of this moment is still quite disturbing and in no way blunts or cushions the moment for the audience. It has a nice little epilogue in terms of the birth of the traditional Punch & Judy show too. So, in some ways the film actually is quite violent but it’s less about what you actually see and more about how the examination of the crimes sit with you on a gut level... although I’m sure some people will believe they saw much more than they actually did in the film and, of course, that’s a great compliment to the director, cast and crew if they do.

Also, I have to say that the biggest crime committed in the film is that the absolutely jaw droppingly brilliant score from composer François Tétaz is not available to buy commercially. It’s so good and really helps elevate the visuals. When it first started, I actually thought it was Alexandre Desplat in full on Wes Anderson movie mode and was surprised when the end credits came up and found it’s Tétaz. This is meant truly in a complimentary way and, honestly, I wish they’d put a CD of this one out because it could very well be a contender for best score of the year. Quite dazzlingly brilliant on the ear throughout.

Okay, so that’s me done other than to mention that there are moments in this film, especially when Judy is ‘resurrected’ and joins up with a secret community of... well lets call them witches for the sake of this review but they’re absolutely not... where Foulkes uses the visual and acoustic syntax of a horror film to good effect. This film isn’t in any way a horror film, for sure but... she effectively mines elements of that genre to tell her tale and with some set design which feels pretty authentic, bolstered by an exceptionally fine cast and crew... well, I’d have to say that Judy And Punch gets a solid recommendation from me, especially for those readers who absolutely love the art of cinema and all that it’s about. Easily one of the year’s best and I would urge you to catch this one at your local venue while you can.

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