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‘Judy & Punch’ review: puppets meet feminism in this slapstick-free drama about spousal abuse

Mia Wasikowska's complex indie is thrilling, but the excitement fades as it runs out of story

From the 17th Century to today, there is still a dramatic formula that makes sense on screen and off. It’s not necessarily nice, or even fair, but it still rings true. Man is cruel, woman is hurt, woman seeks revenge. The key is in the seeking – and it’s this zone that Mirrah Foulkes plays in for her feature directorial debut, Judy & Punch.

The names sound familiar because they are. This is indeed a tale of puppets – and more importantly of puppeteers – but it’s also an origin story that has been respun with imagination and audacity. We have Professor Punch (Damon Herriman), the famed puppeteer with a drinking problem and an ego problem, and then there’s Judy (Mia Wasikowska), his allegedly beloved wife, deftly talented and caring. The unbalanced power dynamic is obvious from the off, but Foulkes swings it in a major twist of fate with one gruesome incident that reroutes the film.

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It’s smart and entertaining, but does often seem like a blown-up short. The story, even with its shocking core, is straightforward and at times can feel slow. The film is weighed down by armies of extras, filling Seaside (a town nowhere near the sea, we’re immediately told) with various entertainers, workers, witches and servants. The period detail, as much in the costume design as in a plucked and playful score by François Tétaz, is delicious – but once you’ve been exposed to it, the thrill does wear off.

Because the film relies so much on the push and pull between its titlular lovers, all rests on the performances of Herriman and Wasikowska. They do a fine job, seedily charming and determinedly gracious respectively, but once the stakes have been established the pace loosens, taking in the views and filling in the gaps between the bloodiest and most brilliant moments.

For a first script, Foulkes’ screenplay is mightily ambitious. Frequently balancing trauma with daring humour, she cares for her bad characters and mocks the good ones when she likes, weaving an assured fairytale that has a freshness specific to a filmmaker rightly schooled in feminism. The title could have suggested a biopic, and that film could have fleshed out and meekly obeyed yet another formulaic retelling. But thank to sparky originality and a well-intentioned narrative, Judy & Punch puts on a show that’s guaranteed to entertain.

‘Judy & Punch’ arrives in cinemas on 22 November

Details

  • Director: Mirrah Foulkes
  • Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Benedict Hardie
  • Release Date: 22 November 2019
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