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LFF 2019 Review: Judy and Punch – “It is the quirky darkness that really holds your interest”

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An Australian film about the traditionally British Punch and Judy puppet show is set in the fictional town of Seaside (a town nowhere near the sea). Muddling the context, history and accents allows the film to consider patriarchy, law, justice and oddities in a way that can apply to any English-speaking country. This all gets lost in the gothic setting and attempts at dark humour but manages to wrap itself up by the final act – it is confidently awkward in its contradictions.

Possible spoilers ahead.

Starring Mia Wasikowska as Judy and Damon Herriman as Punch, it becomes clear early on that Judy is the engine pushing the show while Punch is the alcoholic but charming exterior. Similarly, as the plot darkens into domestic abuse, murder and child neglect the gothic Victorian-era English town is a perfect exterior for such dark themes. Punch is obsessed with being discovered for his puppet show, frustrated with being stuck in a small town he takes out his anger on beer bottles, Judy and eventually their daughter. Once Punch is found to have accidentally murdered her he tries to do the same with Judy, disposing of her beaten body in the woods. It’s at this point the attempts at dark comedy disappear to be replaced by being serious, it’s a jarring disconnect for the audience and the attempt to return to a dark comedy is jarring still.

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As the film continues it becomes clear this is more than just a film about puppeteers, handling contemporary issues such as mob rule (read any Twitter discourse and you’ll see the similarities), law, justice, sexism and treatments of minorities. The film brushes off subtlety in its third act; it is a clear moral at the end with an incredibly hilarious reference to one of Australia’s most famous actors. You might be tempted to give up on the film but the ending really does pull it all together into a stunningly weird and awkward piece of satire.

The performance by Mia is a standout, obviously suited to the weird world of Judy and Punch from her time as Alice in Wonderland under Tim Burton. The other stand out is the soundtrack by François Tétaz, who I hope continues to work in film.

While Judy and Punch may lose its audience in its surprisingly violent scenes, it is the quirky darkness that really holds your interest and holds itself together. The satirical take on modern society is welcome but does not elevate this film, giving up on subtlety and embracing the blunt didactic ending instead.

The film premiered at the BFI London Film Festival and hits UK cinemas on 22nd November 2019.

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