Australian films are a mixed bag at the best of times; you never quite know what you’re going to get. So it’s always wonderful when a true gem comes along, blowing away our expectations of what we perceive as a locally-made production. Looking and feeling nothing like an Australian film, ‘Judy & Punch’ is a breath of fresh air from a new voice in Australian filmmaking.
Punch (Damon Herriman) and Judy (Mia Wasikowska) are trapped in the small, secluded village of Seaside (fittingly without the sea in sight) with their newborn baby, but with aspirations for their famed puppet show to be spotted by scouts so they can ditch their small town lives for the big city. However, Punch’s alcoholism continually gets the better of their situation. When tragedy befalls the family, only a dire change can turn the mindset of the town on its head.
Part fairytale and part black comedy, the tale starts as the traditional story of Punch and Judy, but soon gets turned on its head. Set in period times but with modern attitudes, it brings to the forefront the very poignant topic of domestic violence, interlaced with both the neglect and strength of women. Even with the heavy subject matter, the film is immense fun - weaved amongst the darkness and violence is surprising and frequent humour, which makes the story more palatable and accessible.
This mix of tone is expertly balanced by Mirrah Foulkes, in her feature film debut. Having also scripted the story, she juggles the more violent and confronting elements by utilising the gorgeous cinematography, the perfectly-pitched comedy, a carefully crafted score and songs, and the patchwork of styles even within the period setting.
Following its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, Foulkes explained, “When I decided to make the film period, I also decided at the same time I could break any rules, as long as we were very particular about what the rules were. It was basically an exercise in world-building, and saying okay, this is the world and it should feel like nothing we know."
Aside from the themes already touched upon, 'Judy & Punch' looks at the issue of persecution - in the case of Seaside, the literal persecution of witches, almost entirely for the townspeople’s’ enjoyment - and yet by the end, the detriment is seen to be to the persecutors themselves. This certainly offers some direct parallels with the world in which we currently live.
Part fairytale and part black comedy, yet amongst the darkness and violence are surprising and frequent humour, which makes the story more palatable and accessible.
The world is brought to life by its cinematography, aided by its stunning setting. Filmed outside of Melbourne and in Victoria’s Dandenong region, the film looks about as European as Australia ever has on the big screen. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio and Foulkes deliberately tried to use longer Stedicam shots, which allows us to become a part of this world, whether wandering around a campsite or delving into a fistfight.
The final and yet most essential element is the cast, and for them to be able to play into this world that Foulkes has built. Mia Wasikowska is utterly wonderful as Judy, both as the downtrodden victim of domestic violence and the Phoenix determined to show Punch justice. As such, it’s important that the audience is on side with her brutal revenge, and Damon Herriman allows this by delivering a deplorable, narcissistic character. Every decision he makes is self-centred, with no concern for another soul around him.
It’s always fantastic when an Australian film is a success, and even more so when there’s a female filmmaker at the helm. However, for something as unique and fresh as ‘Judy & Punch’ to come from Australia makes me genuinely proud. A period story with a message that’s vital to current society, Mirrah Foulkes is an exciting young storyteller, and I can’t wait to see what she has in store next.