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Posts Tagged ‘Mirrah Foulkes’

It’s not often that a film that I genuinely want to see gets past me, and when it does it’s a sign that it didn’t get a particularly extensive release in the first place. Such proved to be the case with Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy & Punch, which very briefly ran in the local arthouse at the beginning of December last year. The times just didn’t work out, which was irritating to say the least, and I was glad when the film resurfaced (equally briefly) at the Ultimate Picture Palace recently.

I saw the movie the day after hearing the news of the death of Terry Jones (a capable film director, in addition to his very considerable talents in other areas), and there is something very appropriately Pythonesque about it in parts – though this is a very distinctive film, and absolutely its own thing. Putting it into a category is really not very easy at all.

The film is set in the town of Seaside (which, the captions go out of their way to make clear, is not remotely near the sea), and presumably takes place at some point in the seventeenth century (the setting is a kind of generic Ye Olde England). Here we meet Punch (Damon Herriman), a talented puppeteer trying to make it to the big time, and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska). The theatres in the big towns are reopening after an outbreak of plague, and if they can just get noticed their show could be a great success.

However, a number of things soon become apparent: Punch is a touch too fond of the booze, and has a temper when he’s had a bit to drink. It’s also made clear that it is Judy who is the practical one who makes their performances as successful as they are. She also looks after the house and takes care of their baby; all that Punch seems to want to do is sit around drinking and eating sausages.

The film kind of assumes the viewer is familiar with the classic elements of the Punch and Judy shows which inspired it, for gradually they begin to manifest in the story of the film: a string of sausages, Toby the dog, an ineffectual police constable (Benedict Hardie), and so on. What initially looks like it might just be about a couple of characters with familiar names turns out to be a retelling of the traditional Punch and Judy story – the difference being, of course, that these are real, living characters rather than wooden puppets. (It must be said that they do struggle to work the crocodile into the movie, though.)

There aren’t many films which contain a moment reducing me to sheer gawping astonishment, uncertain of whether to laugh out loud or moan in horror, but there is one of those in Judy & Punch. There is black comedy here, but also genuine horror – but this isn’t really a traditional genre movie, mixing comedy and horror with elements of both drama and fantasy. It is, obviously, a film which is ultimately about misogynistic violence, particularly as it is presented in films and other pieces of entertainment. The central conceit here is to show parts of the traditional Punch & Judy story reenacted by actual people, and of course what is still somehow acceptable as a piece of time-honoured entertainment suddenly seems shockingly inappropriate in this context.

You could probably respond that Punch and Judy is no more meant to be taken seriously than Tom and Jerry cartoons (which are equally violent), but the film does a good job of at least encouraging the viewer to give the notion headspace. It’s an interesting idea, anyway, and one which the film initially plays with in a number of engaging ways. Early on, Judy wonders aloud to Punch if their show isn’t becoming just a bit too violent, and he responds with some weaselly nonsense about being an artist who has to go where his talent leads him – adding, also, that the audience likes the violent bits (exactly the same kind of self-justification some film directors are overly fond of). It also touches on the long historical history of violence committed against women by men, witch-trials and so forth. As it goes on, however, some of the wit evident in the opening part of the film falls away a little, and it becomes a rather less playful film and much more of a straightforward drama. I thought this was rather a shame, given how strongly it starts. It may just be that the film peaks too soon: certainly, there are some extremely uneven moments towards the end, with gory mutilations mixed up with a bizarre moment spoofing Gladiator (for no very obvious reason).

You may find your heart sinking at the thought of a movie which, whatever its trappings, basically exists to make feminist points about violence committed by men against women. And I can totally appreciate where you are coming from with that. However, what I should say about Judy & Punch is that this never feels like a very heavy or overly didactic film. It never quite loses that edge of black comedy and horror that makes it a little bit different to what you might expect. The sheer unexpectedness of the thing is very engaging, and there are two very strong performances from the leads. It looks good throughout, and there is a memorable soundtrack from Francois Tetaz as well.

In the end, this is a fable more than anything else, and I should say that whatever the film’s ideas are about violent and misogynistic entertainment, they are presented obliquely: the focus is always on the story of Punch and Judy as real people, rather than putting across an on-the-nose message. There may be slightly less going on here than meets the eye, but the film is quirky and unusual enough to retain the interest, and it concludes with a memorably grotesque sequence that may ensure you never look at a ‘real’ Punch and Judy show in the same light again. That’s probably the film’s whole raison d’etre: it sounds like a strange objective, but it will probably make you agree that it’s a worthwhile one.

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