Judy & Punch: Theatre of the Absurd, by Tyler Smith
One of the most enjoyable things about Judy & Punch is picturing the formulation if its central idea. Written and directed by Mirrah Foulkes, the film is essentially about the selfishness of a drunken husband and its violent impact on his patient wife. That this all takes place in a medieval town on the brink of complete structural collapse – and that the husband and wife are talented puppeteers, responsible for the iconic “Punch and Judy” shows known around the country – is what makes the film so uniquely perverse. How the director arrived at such an interesting take on a fairly conventional idea is hard to know, but her confidence in creating an unapologetically lavish, indulgent visual landscape – and maintaining a pitch black sense of humor throughout – is undeniably refreshing. The result is an enjoyable film that is lovingly-conceived by its director, cast, and crew.
The story features a seemingly-happy young couple named Punch (Damon Harriman) and Judy (Mia Wasikowska). They are parents to a young boy, but Punch’s true passion is his crowd-pleasing puppet show. Judy is committed to her husband and son, but is growing more concerned with Punch’s drinking. This results in a violent confrontation that leaves Judy in the care of a community of outcasts, viewed with suspicion by a community that is increasingly paranoid about witchcraft.
To say anything more would be to do a disservice to a film that feels delightfully original in its story and even more so in its tone. The film often veers from deadly serious to bombastically comedic from one scene to the next. These conflicting tones are kept in balance by a director who seems to instinctively understand the fluid interaction between tragedy and comedy.
Take the townspeople, for example. Living in relative squalor, these simple folk are yearning not only for someone to blame their troubles on, but for genuine entertainment. The glib Mr. Frankly (Tom Budge) attempts to accomplish both by regularly finding people to accuse of witchcraft and hosting public executions, where the townspeople can take out their frustrations on the poor accused. These scenes are inherently tragic (and infuriating), but Mirrah Foulkes and her game cast are able to elevate the proceedings to the level of dark satire, finding parallels in modern cultural attitudes and the unquestioning nature of mob rule. It is a testament to Foulkes’s assured handling of the material that many of the biggest laughs come at the saddest moments.
In order to maintain this unexpected tonal balance, Foulkes pushes her collaborators to new heights of visual and aural absurdity. Punch’s self-conscious theatricality can be explained by his profession, but the rest of the townspeople seem equally as eager to speak in polysyllabic proclamations and dress in ornate clothing. All of this is underscored by the aggressively wicked musical compositions of François Tétaz, who manages to convey fatalistic dread with a playful wink to the crowd.
Everything is so over the top that it is all the more admirable that both Mia Wasikowska and Damon Harriman are able to find subtle moments within their characters. There is sadness in their relationship, not because of its current dysfunction, but due to its past affection. As these characters regard each other, the contempt is always tempered with a palpable sense of regret, and an awareness of what could have been if virtue had overcome vice. These moments are what give the film its heart, keeping it from tipping fully into delectable cynicism.
Going into Judy & Punch, I can safely say that I didn’t know what to expect. And that feeling continued throughout the film, as director Mirrah Foulkes finds fun and original ways to explore well-trod emotional territory, reinvigorating it in a way that is engaging and exciting. It is an unlikely gem that deserves to be discovered and treasured.