There are shades of Angela Carter’s feminist fairy tales in Australian director Mirrah Foulkes’s debut feature as it reimagines the violently misogynistic British seaside puppet attraction Punch & Judy. It posits the notion that they are a couple living in the imaginary town of Seaside – a medieval society where stoning, hangings and the stupidity of the pack mentality runs riot. It’s a world where women who step out of line are considered witches and brute force is the rule of the land.
Mia Wasikowska plays Judy, the one with all the talent when it comes to puppetry. With her husband Punch (Damon Herriman) they run a rowdy theatre show where the punters howl with laughter when Judy gets a smack in the face. When Punch’s unruly behaviour and destructive alcoholism leads to a series of tragic incidents Foulkes uses intoxicating magic realism to further the narrative. Without wanting to give too much away it looks to women and the outliers to seize the power back.
The magnificent, rural landscapes of Australia where hooded figures roam with intent provide a striking backdrop for a fantasy revenge to unfold. It switches between these vast settings and the richly realised mise en scène of cosier dwellings where scarlet curtained stages and cobbled streets hide wicked secrets and the wooded enclaves outside of town offer enticing sanctuary. Foulkes is intent on subverting the audience’s expectations by continually confronting shifting standards of acceptability in the entertainment industry. It strikes out the idea of a utopia where men don’t exist (as heavenly as that is portrayed) and allows feminist rage to kick back by storming the heavily guarded gates of the patriarchy.
Judy & Punch is a film that demands justice for its female characters and in turn suggests the best way to fight back is to assemble and openly call out offenders. Wasikowska is electrifying as she leads the charge against oppression in an impressively mounted debut with real fire in its belly that marks Foulkes out as one to watch.