What would it be like to live inside a fairy tale? What if the devil was real, and witches lurked in forests and hid amongst us, and behind every door was someone who might take away everything you have? That’s the world Mirrah Foulkes throws us into at the start of her debut featur, retelling the infamous story of Punch and Judy – only this time Judy (Mia Wasikowska) is taking centre stage.
Set in the town of Seaside (located just about as far from the sea as you can get), puppeteers Punch (Damon Herriman) and Judy perform their show of battling marionettes to the raucous applause of a community paranoid about everything but what they’re watching. But it doesn’t take long behind the scenes to realise that Punch is an abusive drunkard led by his wounded pride, and that it is Judy who is the real root of their success, be it as a hard-worker and muse. But a vicious beating following the untimely death of their infant daughter at Punch’s hands is what casts Judy out into the forest to begin plotting her revenge.
As much as the tale is adapted from the Punch and Judy puppet shows, there’s no doubt that Foulkes drew on traditional fairy tales for much of her inspiration. The opening scene has a little blue riding hood running through the town, Judy’s time in the forest feels like Snow White’s, and her grim fixation on justice is reminiscent of so many stories we were told as children. This, of course, opens up a playground for the ingenious set design and costumes that really sell the magical tone of this world where revenge can be sweet.
Absolutely key to the film’s charisma is its humour. For a film with stoning, wife beating, and baby murdering galore, it’s actually laugh-out-loud funny from the major players to the chorus. Mia Wasikowska shines with magnetism, as always. Her nuanced performance without even speaking is utilised by Foulkes to construct the enigmatic Judy that Punch so bitterly loves. And Herriman presents a Punch so despicable behind the immediate charm and stage presence that you can get behind Judy’s somewhat-worrying obsession with him ‘not winning anymore.’
Decidedly solid in structure for the first half, it has to be said that the conclusion feels a little too Hollywood for what, had up to this point, been a delightfully thoughtful and humorous indie. From a Scooby-Doo twist on the traditional story’s encounter with the devil, to a puppet/Judy parallel that probably worked better in storyboards, the characters seem uncannily held up by strings for an epic climax that was maybe misplaced.
Regardless, Mirrah Foulkes completely transforms the traditional past-time of subjecting children to watch casual domestic violence and an abuser getting away with his crimes into a liberating (if slightly forced) tale of acceptance and justice. A feminist retelling, a dark comedy, and an adaptation of a puppet show, Judy & Punch takes the opportunity to give voice to the voiceless, like so many fairy tales do.
Judy & Punch is in cinemas now
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.