Despite origins in 16th century Italy and containing a character named Pulcinella, the concept of the traditional puppet show Punch & Judy would eventually make its home in Britain during the 17th century – historians say 1662, thanks to a diary entry by the Bridget Jones of his day, Samuel Pepys.
Within a hundred years ‘Pulcinella’ was anglicised to the much snappier and succinct ‘Mr. Punch’ and Joan, his wife also had a name change and took on the moniker ‘Judy’. Puppets on strings would pull a Pinocchio, only rather than becoming ‘real’ they would adorn the hands of the hidden human and entertain adults and children alike for more than 350 years – regardless of form or plot-line – usually at the seaside. Perhaps it was the sea air which rendered audiences immune to the repugnancy of the insidious Mr. Punch.
‘Seaside’ is the locale of Mirrah Foulkes’ debut feature, ‘somewhere in England’ and ‘nowhere near the sea’. A small cloaked figure steals into town to sneak into the evening’s show. Bottler Judy (Mia Wasikowska) shakes a tankard for coinage and entertains the crowd before announcing the main event: Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) and his puppets. He appears through crimson velvet drapery with a bang and cloud of smoke; caked in face-paint, jester-like in his stage costume complete with twirled moustache. Make no mistake, this – debatable when we see Judy’s puppeteering skills – is the star of the show. By the end of the elaborate opening credits we, just like the rowdy audience onscreen, are hooked.
Punch and Judy live in a beautiful home with their daughter, Baby (the cheek pinchingly adorable Scarlett and Summer Dixon), maid Maud (Brenda Palmer) and her husband Scaramouche (Tony Norris). They await the day that scouts arrive in Seaside to discover the magic of their talent and transplant it to The Big Smoke. He wants more fame and fortune – swanning around Seaside as a minor celeb is not quite enough for his ego – while she seems fairly content with their lot. Although, she does seek to tone down the ‘punchy and smashy’ aspect of the show, while imploring him to stop frequenting local watering hole McDrinkie’s, and ideally would like the community around her to be a little less… judgemental.
Townspeople are banished as heretics to the Black Forest, others are publicly hanged, and women are stoned daily for reasons that are utterly ridiculous but are, of course, to the folk of Seaside signs of witchcraft and (obviously) the work of The Devil. Leading the charge is the simpering and sneering Mr. Frankly (Tom Budge) who rewards the important men of town with casting the first stone and brings actual fanfare to the Gallows. New Constable Derrick (Benedict Hardie) has his work cut out; crimes and grievances bypass his office and result in quick confessions and executions. Then there’s his crush on Judy… while local prostitute Polly (Lucy Velik) only has eyes for Punch. Maud’s job is becoming harder as hubby Scaramouche’s memory worsens but as long as her master gets his sausages before Toby the dog gets his paws on them, all should be well.
Plot-wise, if you’re at all familiar with the show, then you can rest assured it’s all here. Foulkes gives us a bit of an origin story – albeit a subverted one – which looks at the historical context and celebration of (gendered) violence, as well as the notion of oral histories and storytelling in its earliest form, idiom and allegory. The film is darkly comic from the very beginning with a never-faltering tone which is perfectly pitched and often black. It’s hard to find the humour in heavy hitting themes such as domestic violence, alcoholism, adultery, murder, early onset dementia, and misogyny but writer-director Foulkes finds that twisted balance perfectly. Assisting her in some lovely cinematography is seasoned DoP Stefan Duscio, gorgeous period costumes designed by Edie Kurzer and a gloriously bizarre soundtrack courtesy of composer François Tetaz – there’s a theatricality to his music which simultaneously feels dated and contemporary when accompanied with the action onscreen.
Performances are solid from Hardie’s drippy Derrick to Gillian Jones’ dark, mysterious – and possibly necromantic – Dr. Goodtime. Terry Norris’ bumbling Scaramouche is a delight, Wasikowska is always worth the price of admission, and the currently ubiquitous Herriman is suitably deranged as maniacal Punch. It’s a charming collective of Australian actors – including Foulkes behind the camera (she can be seen in front of it in The Gift, The Turning, and Animal Kingdom) albeit with a multitude of British and Irish accents. Not every single one is convincing but it often adds to the hilarity – Herriman’s is of course flawless.
Astonishingly, the entire film was filmed on location in Australia and yet is so authentically ‘English-looking’. It all works brilliantly. As an origin story, comedy, and dark drama Judy & Punch is an assured, astute and compelling film. It’s one which offers up a lot and delivers on everything – History becomes Herstory and brava to that.