This reworking of the old Punch and Judy tale is a dark, indeed almost Grimm fairy tale, reminiscent of the work of novelist Angela Carter, which puts a feminist revenge slant onto the violence of the traditional seaside puppet show.
Although set in the fictional European town of Seaside, which is nowhere near the sea and in the traditional, fairy tale sort of in seventeenth century world, where men wear breeches and women peasant style laced bodices, this is perhaps surprisingly made in Australia, with the state of Victoria standing in very effectively for middle Europe and is a feature film debut by award winning short film director Mirrah Foulkes.
Seaside is a poverty stricken little town, where superstition rules and women are stoned as witches at the whim of the mob. Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and her husband Punch (Damon Herriman) live in a once grand mansion she has inherited from her family and scrape a living as puppeteers, acting out the traditional wife beating tale of their namesakes. Punch is the showman, who hogs the limelight, Judy the skilled operator of the marionettes of their show.
Sadly what happens in the show is reflected in their lives. While they were once in love, Punch has now become an alcoholic, wife beating bully, who eventually goes too far and beats Judy to within an inch of her life. She is though rescued by a group of children, who take her the magical Black Forest where the Heretics live – outcasts from the community who are mainly women and children, living in that feels like a sort of seventeenth century version of Greenham Common. Their healer Dr Goodtimes (Gillian Jones) brings Judy back from the brink of death and it is there that she plots her revenge on her abusive husband.
This original and beautifully imagined piece uses the traditions of the Punch and Judy tale, incorporating elements like Toby the dog, who steals Punch’s sausages, the abused baby, Scaramouche who becomes Judy’s elderly servant, suffering from dementia and then gives them a realistic and unusual twist, which belongs solely to this fictional world. Derrick (Benedict Hardie), who has a crush on Judy but is useless when it comes to protecting her, is the town’s ineffectual policeman and to identify him with the Punch and Judy legend, is given a deliberately anachronistic policeman’s helmet.
Wasikowska as Judy changes effectively from abused wife to avenging angel, though Herriman as her husband almost steals the limelight of the film as well as the puppet show from her. Sporting an all purpose Irish accent, although obviously hateful in his brutality, he also has a dangerously wicked charm, a touch of the Errol Flynn about him and a good sense of comedy when required.
To call the film charming would be misnomer. It’s far too dark and sometimes shockingly violent for that. Director Foulkes has created an unsettling fantasy world which both links to our real one and also casts a totally fascinating new light on the traditional tale of Punch and Judy. The other world atmosphere is also very effectively supported by an evocative and unsettling music score by Francois Tétaz and some electronic takes on well known airs. And the puppets by the way are mesmerising.