Judy and Punch is a perfect opening night film for the resurgent Brisbane International Film Festival. It’s an Australian-made film starring two of our best actors – Mia Wasikowska as Judy, the long-suffering wife of ‘famous’ puppeteer Punch (Damon Herriman, settling into his recent villain typecasting) – and directed by a first-time director you might recognise, Mirrah Foulkes, a Queensland-born actress seen in the likes of Animal Kingdom and The Turning. The film is at once crowd-pleasing and confrontational, twisting the once incredibly-popular domestic violence puppet show Punch and Judy into a “blackly comic feminist revenge tale.”
It’s well-suited to the film festival for the wrong reasons, too. That quote comes from the Facebook event for the Australian premiere of the film – way back in June at the Sydney Film Festival. Judy and Punch played both Sydney and Melbourne’s film festivals, making its inclusion at the front end of Brisbane’s flagship festival somewhat surprising. But that’s testament to the nature of this year’s BIFF lineup, which is filled with a smorgasbord of excellent films that…mostly already played Sydney and/or Melbourne earlier in the year. That’s possibly testament to the work processes of GOMA – who took operation of the festival from Palace a couple years ago (thankfully!) – but the end result is a festival with a lot to offer casual film fans, but little to offer interstate visitors cinephiles who might’ve travelled down south earlier in the year.
Nonetheless, there are certainly excellent films on the roster. I can particularly single out both Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Pain and Glory – each of which I caught in Melbourne – and I’m keen to see both Monos and The Souvenir later this week. But aside from the breadth of the program and the quality of the canapés at the opening night (they were nice!), how does Judy and Punch stack up as a film?
Let’s return to that slogan from earlier – “blackly comic feminist revenge tale.” Judy and Punch is most successful in the blackly comic mode; this is a film where a live baby is tossed out a window to its death and it manages to be at once horrifying and hilarious – a rare accomplishment. Foulkes’ screenplay is at its best across its first act, where it at once reproduces and interrogates the comedic mode of the infamous puppet show. We laugh at the horrible events – murder and violence and wicked prejudice – while feeling sick in our stomach at their ramifications. It’s all played at such a heightened, almost-campy frequency that it lands as parodic without undermining the horrors on display.
This also allows the film to mostly work as a feminist reclamation of a decidedly un-feminist narrative. Judy is apparently murdered by her husband early in the piece – the ‘apparently’ is maybe a spoiler, but let’s be honest, an actress of Wasikowska’s calibre wasn’t going to disappear twenty minutes into the film – and is rescued by a roving band of outcast nomads living on the outskirts of town. Their motley crew is representative of the kind of people cast out from a ‘polite’ patriarchal society: doctors and artists and difference.
The problem with Judy and Punch is when it slips, late in the piece, into “revenge tale” mode. There’s two main ways to tell a story like this. Either you use to draw attention to the cumulative effect of disadvantage, the implacability of bigotry … or you twist it towards something more hopeful. Foulkes takes the latter option, but the execution is just off. After effectively painting a picture of a society where stonings are commonplace, masculinity dominates and fear cows the vulnerable, Judy and Punch imagines a climax where a front flip off a horse and a stirring speech turns dystopia to utopia. It’s an incredibly false note: an act of self-sabotage that undermines everything that came before.