Inspired by the traditional seaside Punch and Judy puppet show, Mirrah Foulkes’ feature debut re-frames the iconic story into a female-centric narrative focused on Punch’s poor battered wife. In Judy & Punch, the two titular characters run their own puppet show, popular among their small town of Seaside but failing to attract the fame Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) craves. After a drunken Punch kills the couple’s baby and beats his wife bloody, leaving her for dead, Judy (Mia Wasikowska) must avenge the violence done to her and her child. Or so the official synopsis would have you think, but instead of a subversive, feminist revenge tale, what we actually get is an unfunny comedy-drama that shirks away from the inherent darkness of its subject matter and opts instead for what is safe and stale.
For a film centred around two acts of brutal violence, Judy & Punch tries painfully hard to be light and humorous. It’s not that humour and violence cannot co-exist in a film, but doing so successfully requires the filmmakers have a tight grasp of their project’s tone, which writer-director Foulkes simply does not. The result is a tonal mess from which the film cannot recover. Instead of embracing the tale’s darkness with an offbeat black humour, the jokes in Judy & Punch instead serve only as an attempt to distract the audience from the violence and assure them that neither that violence, nor the film itself, should be taken remotely seriously.
The problem is, we need to take the violence seriously for the film to make any sense. When the baby is flung from the window, it is more humorous than horrific – and yet the audience is expected to empathise with Judy, something the film actively prevents by framing the trauma at the centre of her emotional journey as something funny.
The revenge promised by the official blurb lasts about a minute before Judy is talked out of it by her new mates at an all-female hippy commune and decides to do some calming group forest yoga instead. Seriously. Instead of focusing on the pain of someone who has been mistreated and denied justice, or on female rage in response to gendered violence (themes which are all too relevant to today’s society), Judy & Punch takes the road more travelled, paying lip service to female empowerment with a sickeningly insincere girl-power ending. Even in a children’s story (Judy & Punch has a 15 rating) would it be hard to believe one rousing speech would be all it takes to eliminate all the deeply-held prejudices of a town that gleefully stone women to death for looking at the sky for a ‘suspiciously very long time.’ The film has the opportunity to say something powerful, but shirks the responsibility. Rather than take the risk that comes with making a statement – or simply asking questions – about societal misogyny or violence against women, Judy & Punch has nothing more powerful to say than ‘we all bleed red’ – the go-to of any substance-free film trying to grasp at the façade of meaning.
That isn’t to say there isn’t the odd saving grace, only that they never had a chance to overcome the failures of the script; the costume and production design are good, and the opening sequence of a cloaked girl running through the alleys of Seaside is appropriately atmospheric. Damon Herriman is suitably detestable as the wife-beating Professor Punch, and while Judy is bland, this can hardly be laid at the feet of Wasikowska, as even the best actor can only do so much with a character so lacking in personality.
It’s not often a film squanders its potential so wholly and so spectacularly as Judy & Punch. By being unwilling to take risks and embrace the darkness of the material, it rather incredibly takes a unique premise and senselessly bludgeons it until its bloody remains will fit neatly into a pre-made, Hollywood-approved box. It isn’t so much that the filmmakers don’t know what tone they were going for as much as that they are desperate for it to have a different tone from the one the story needs. When a filmmaker is at war with their own material, everyone loses.
Judy & Punch opens in UK cinemas on 22nd November 2019.