Judy & Punch stars Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman as a puppeteer couple


4 stars

What a career Canberra-raised superstar actress Mia Wasikowska has had, aged only 30 and having headlined films by Tim Burton, David Cronenberg and Jim Jarmusch.

At the age most of her peers have just finished their degrees at NIDA and are shopping their CVs around, her career is moving into a second, more mature stage.

Mia Wasikowska, left, and Damon Herriman in Judy & Punch. Picture: Supplied

Mia Wasikowska, left, and Damon Herriman in Judy & Punch. Picture: Supplied

In Aussie actress Mirrah Foulkes' first feature film as writer and director, Wasikowska is a medieval Sarah Connor, a wronged wife who claws her way to revenge.

It is a mature role, a grown-up woman, and it takes an actress of her strength to pull off, as the film rests squarely on her shoulders.

The reversal of the name of the ancient puppet show Punch and Judy is deliberate, as this is a story about a back-stage supporting player stepping out from the wings.

Damon Herriman is Punch, a travelling puppeteer, self-billed as the greatest puppeteer of his age, though the audience soon realises that crown belongs to his wife Judy.

She was left an orphan when the plague swept through their European countryside town ironically called Seaside and was raised by her old servants Maude (Brenda Palmer) and Scaramouche (Terry Norris).

Judy had been charmed when the puppeteer travelled through the town and left with his show some years before.

But Punch's inability to control his drinking and his volatile temper ruined his reputation in the bigger cities, and the couple are back, young baby in tow, and have reopened their puppet theatre.

Punch dreams that visiting talent scouts will see their show and make their fortune.

But his irresponsible behaviour has grave consequences one day when he is tasked with babysitting.

A grieving and furious Judy provokes her husband to violence and she is left for dead.

The couple's stories divert - Judy is rescued and healed back to health by a band of women who have fled accusations of witchcraft.

Meanwhile, Punch fabricates a tale to garner sympathy for the loss of his wife and child, accusing the servants of witchcraft and murder.

Foulkes's ambition for this film is enormous.

It is as grandly realised as a Terry Gilliam film, bringing to mind his The Brothers Grimm.

Her screenplay is rich with ideas and hints at bigger stories and influences.

There are many things to unpack, beginning with naming the town in which the film is set Seaside.

In the post-World War II years, the Punch and Judy show was a British seaside town standard, and the film ends with archival footage of 1950s children being entertained or terrified by the puppet theatre.

Mia Wasikowska in Judy & Punch. Picture: Supplied

Mia Wasikowska in Judy & Punch. Picture: Supplied

Foulkes explores mob psychology: in this context it is 17th-century accusations of witchcraft, easily read by younger viewers as a take on cancel culture.

She looks at toxic unchecked male behaviour and child abuse.

Foulkes doesn't shy away from consequence, which is to say that while this is an extremely well made film, sometimes taking it in isn't an enjoyable experience.

The costuming is well-realised and if some of it feels anachronistic, with villagers wearing clothing from various eras, we later learn that one of the women chased away by accusations of witchcraft is the local seamstress.

Franois Tétaz's music use is sometimes fun, sometimes tonally odd, which is I assume what they were going for.

This is an Australian production, and kudos to the locations team because you wouldn't know it.

The Dandenong Ranges double for the European countryside and one of the Spiegeltents is employed as the puppet theatre, among other clever work.

The puppetry is gorgeous, as are the real-life performances.

A deliciously doddery role is gifted to wonderful vintage actor Norris.

Damon Herriman is having his year, off the back of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but this dark fairytale belongs to Wasikowska.

This story Wasikowska shines in dark story first appeared on The Canberra Times.