Judy & Punch might flip the names around in the title but does Mirrah Foulkes’ film really focus on Judy more than Punch?
Punch and Judy shows weren’t actually created by two people named Punch and Judy. The couple in Foulkes’ new movie, however, owe more than their names to the classic puppet show. While the violence is what’s best remembered about Punch and Judy today, what happens to Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and her baby (Scarlett and Summer Dixon) in Foulkes’ screenplay was actually a common storyline (Livia Gershon’s article, When Puppet Shows Were Too Violent For Kids, is a good read if you don’t mind spoilers). While some of the details, like Punch’s alcoholism and Judy’s puppeteer work, are Foulkes’ creation, Judy asking Punch (Damon Herriman) to babysit and the tragedy that follows are not.
Foulkes, however, gives Judy a chance to seek revenge and that is new. Like most revenge tales, Judy has some reservations. The problem is the film lets us hear more from the heretics who give Judy shelter than Judy herself. The film makes it abundantly clear how they feel but the question is where Judy falls on revenge, and instead of making us privy to her thought process the film jumps to her actions without preparing viewers for what those actions might be.
The film also doesn’t reserve time for Judy’s grief. Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale came out a few months before Judy & Punch. Both films are Australian and female-directed. Both films made their North American premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019. Both films are about a mother seeking revenge against Damon Herriman, but whereas The Nightingale digs in and doesn’t look away (making it an honest, if difficult, film to watch), Judy & Punch skips ahead to the happy ending, leaving gaps where you would expect pushback and making the ending feel oversimplified.
Eventually it becomes clear that Judy & Punch is meant to be taken more as a fairy tale than a story that’s completely ground in reality, but that’s not necessarily obvious from the start. Many of the issues being covered are extremely relevant to this moment, from Judy not getting credit for her contributions to Punch’s show (which is just referred to as Punch’s show until a not quite explained change of heart on Punch’s part) to the witch hunts being perpetrated by the people of Seaside, where Judy lives.
Judy standing up for herself should be a moment of triumph. Instead the film makes that moment hard to trust by skipping over parts and including too much fantasy. Judy’s actions never feel replicable and maybe rebellion gets built up sometimes, into being more than acts of bravery, but Judy & Punch isn’t the film to prove that.
Judy & Punch will be on VOD starting June 5th.
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