In the town of Seaside, nowhere near the sea, a couple of married puppeteers perfect their craft and develop a show that should return them to the height of their profession. Yet, all is not well for the talented Judy (Mia Wasikowska) as her abusive and selfish husband Punch (Damon Herriman) seems incapable of either controlling his drunkenness or his infidelities. As the town teeters on the verge of hysteria, due to an ongoing witch hunt, Judy finds herself facing a personal tragedy, and must finally confront the shortcomings of the man she’s married.
There’s a patchiness to this film, that the quirky script can’t quite cover. An unevenness to the story that leaves its potential unfulfilled. Judy & Punch certainly has a mark of quality about it; the beautiful look to the film, the strange world it brings to life, the cutting statements it makes about the thin veneer of society as it collapses into debauched mayhem and violent disarray – yet it at times feels like an unfinished script, lacking in connective tissue, with a climactic sequence that fails to bring its message home.
Which is a pity, as there’s so much to this Australian film that is unique, creating something that is delightfully off-kilter. This odd exploration into the violent 17th-century puppet show that creates a framework that normalised domestic abuse for children, gives it an origin in a quasi-fantasy setting. Seaside might be miles away from any sea, but that’s not the only thing odd about the town.
However, the strange eccentricities are not as worrying as the familiar. Those patterns of patriarchal power, and creating a scapegoat of the minority, are extremely recognisable. These might be given a dash of satirical comedy such as a murderous holiday (“Happy Stoning Day!”), but that mob mentality is far too close to the surface in the modern world. It’s a dark almost Pythonesque humour that Judy & Punch revels in and is generally at its best when it’s doing so.
Yet despite having all the elements in place, Judy & Punch is ultimately not successful at linking these threads together into a satisfactory revenge tale. There’s a certain lack of agency, that make the end result seem more that of destiny or random chance, than a deserved comeuppance orchestrated by one wronged and brought about by hubris. It sours what could have been something very special.
Judy & Punch is a very different Australian film than we’re used to, and one that has a lot going for it. Certainly worth a look, even with its imperfections.