Mirrah Foulkes’ first directorial debut "Judy and Punch" begins as an eccentric, offbeat and colourful medieval bonanza where the beer never runs dry and the laughs never cease – that is, until the beating takes place off stage and suddenly, we’re left wondering what was so funny in the first place. But then again, isn’t that exactly what Punch and Judy is about?
Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman star in this performance of domestic violence; the addition of ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr’ before each crew member’s name highlights the topic of gender inequality from the get go. It is a tale of survival, of injustice and discrimination staged by the greatest – if slightly struggling and penniless – puppeteer of his generation, Mr Punch – and of course, his wife Judy, who hassles her way through the crowds for the odd coin and gets tossed around on stage, despite taking part equally in the show. She is mirrored by her body double, the little puppet Judy on stage, who is beaten and battered for the audience’s amusement and who has no say in the way the show goes either. “We smashed it to bits and pieces!”, Punch exclaims triumphantly multiple times when their return to the stage is victorious. Judy’s suffering is a performance and her humiliation persistently public: there is no escaping the crowd’s watchful eyes. And she has had enough.
The film is aesthetically a joy to watch, a twisted cross between the deep reds and visceral imagery of Matteo Garrone’s "Tale of Tales" and the medieval chants and inescapable forests of Robert Eggers’ "The Witch". François Tétaz’ music is nothing short of extraordinary, lending the film an eerie atmosphere oddly similar to Michael Abels’ score for "Us". The film is marked by particularly striking violence – a townsman creepily wishes the couple a Happy Stoning Day, where the stoned are women accused of witchcraft – yet it is also somehow tainted with comedy. This confusion is at the heart of the Punch and Judy shows; what Foulkes does is merely kick the action off the stage and into Judy and Punch’s real world, where real people and real lives are affected. It is only then that the audience starts to listen.
The topical issue of violence – especially towards women – is played out on stage, yet the puppet allegory is cleverly made double: on one hand, the male puppet hits the female puppet, but on the other, both puppets are used, controlled and played with, unable to govern themselves. This is seemingly the end note Foulkes wishes to leave us with, perhaps in slightly too literal a way at the climax – yet, the stage of Punch and Judy exempts this, as the whole play revolves around a storyline lacking in depth and sense. The violence towards women is in the end but an aspect of the true issue, that of not being taken seriously in a prominently patriarchal world. An exceptionally powerful scene sees Judy scream out all of the anguish and anger she has felt not only at being beaten up by her husband, but also at everything he has made her suffer throughout the years. ‘Does Punch always win?’, Scotty, a perplexingly androgynous child who incidentally functions as the audience’s guide and who fits into none of the two opponents’ categories, asks. ‘He won’t be winning anymore,’ Judy answers. And indeed, as many films that portray the relationship between man and woman where the latter leads the way but the former always obtains the glory, Punch is nothing without Judy. "Judy and Punch" thus might well be a tale of survival and sexism, but it is also a tale of empowerment and unity, in which the discrimination towards women morphs into something larger, something more general: it is a tale that emboldens the victimised and shames the oppressors.
Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film Editor