Though Sundance is always awash in empowerment tales both fictive and non, this year the climate of political discord seems to have inspired an even larger batch than usual, particularly those that address misogyny. And there’s unlikely to be another such title in 2019 that thinks so far outside the creative box to score its points as “Judy & Punch,” Aussie thesp-turned-writer-director Mirrah Foulkes’ first feature.
Located somewhere on the fanciful continuum between Wiccan fable and Monty Python farce, this is a tale of domestic-violence revenge set in a satirical-whimsical land of never-was. The core narrative is rather simple, and the political metaphor not especially subtle. But the overall concept, from Foulkes and her trio of story collaborators, has a bracingly original air, from the film’s period anachronisms to its impressive design elements. Slick as a mid-budget mainstream popcorn fantasy (though in spirit anything but), it’s a sure bet for lively distribution bidding; still, marketing this oft-delightful concoction will nonetheless pose a challenge.
Being landlocked isn’t the only thing strange about a town named Seaside, whose era and location might best be described as Vintage Hammer Studios; it’s the kind of all-purpose movie village of yore where one expects a vampire or werewolf to keep rowdy peasants in line. Here, however, residents mostly direct their superstitious fears at each other, with a regular Stoning Day devoted to the public demise of any poor women unlucky enough to be accused of something that might pass as sorcery — such as looking at the moon for a suspiciously long time.
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That’s one distasteful fact of life among many for Judy (Mia Wasikowska), a Seaside native who ran away with entertainer Punch (Damon Herriman) but returned with him and a newborn babe. Her status seems relatively high as spouse to “the greatest puppeteer of his generation,” whose knockabout shows are always a hit. But she actually seems to be the more talented half of the partnership, while he — resembling too closely his marionette alter ego — is a drunkard and batterer whose promises to turn over a new leaf always come up empty.
Left to care for the baby for just an hour, he gets soused and is responsible for a tragic, unforgivable accident. Upon Judy’s return, her horrified reprisal leads to him seemingly beat her to death, burying her body in the forest, then wailing to the authorities that his wife and child are “missing.” Soon he’s fingering two harmless old servants (Brenda Palmer, Terry Norris) as “witches” to further obscure his dastardly deeds.
But Judy is found, not entirely dead after all, by outcast children. They bring her to a secret, transient “heretic camp” whose members have all fled or been chased out of society for being different. Eventually she recovers enough to plot her sweet revenge.
Yet that vengeance is a little too “magical” in presentation for a film whose world may be cobbled together from collective cultural memories but which, until then, is viewed through a sensibility that exposes rather than embraces illusion. Nonetheless, Foulkes’ script and direction retain enough playful invention to undercut the whiff of heavy-handedness, even when Wasikowska delivers a climactic speech that might as well be openly directed at reactionary political forces in any country “Judy & Punch” is likely to play in.
Cast and crew fully commit to this skewed fairy tale, whose ingenuity of detail lifts it over the occasional obviousness of plot or message. Foulkes’ writing especially shines in the fun that’s had with fracturing archaic language, or nonverbal incongruities like a quasi-gypsy community practicing tai chi to a Leonard Cohen song. Excellent design contributions conjure equally familiar yet slightly askew takes on vaguely 18th-century mittle-Yurrup dress and decor, all handsomely captured in Stefan Duscio’s widescreen cinematography. Francois Tetaz’s score incorporates everything from lightly ironic orchestral sobriety to the odd bit of retro prog-rock.
Wasikowska, who seemed to have stopped playing ingenues just the other day, now sports a mature authority that makes Judy seem formidable even before the story requires it. Longtime Aussie film/TV actor Herriman channels some of the late Richard Harris’ semi-tongue-in-cheek bombast as the classic weak-willed bully with delusions of grandeur. Principal among the flavorsome support turns are Lucy Velik as the villager of easy virtue who encourages vice, and Benedict Hardie as a greenhorn constable who’s the only man here with a notion that justice should be based on reason rather than bloodlust.