×

Sundance Film Review: ‘Judy & Punch’

Mirrah Foulkes' first directorial feature is a determinedly offbeat, often delightful mix of satire, whimsy and social critique.

Director:
Mirrah Foulkes
With:
Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Tom Budge, Benedict Hardie, Lucy Velik, Gillian Jones, Terry Norris, Brenda Palmer, Daisy Axon.

1 hour 45 minutes

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Sundance Film Review: 'Judy & Punch'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition), Jan. 27, 2019. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: (Australia) A Vice Studios and Screen Australia presentation in association with Film Victoria and Create NSW of a Blue-Tongue Films and Pariah production. (International sales: Cornerstone Films, London.) Producers: Michele Bennett, Nash Edgerton, Danny Gabai. Executive producers: Eddy Moretti, Vincent Landay, Natalie Farrey, Jennifer Semler, Tom Punch, Judy Punch.

Crew: Director, writer: Mirrah Foulkes, from a story by Tom Punch, Lucy Punch, Eddy Moretti, Foulkes. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Stefan Duscio. Editor: Dany Cooper. Music: Francois Tetaz.

With: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Tom Budge, Benedict Hardie, Lucy Velik, Gillian Jones, Terry Norris, Brenda Palmer, Daisy Axon.

More Film

  • Aaron Janus Lionsgate

    Lionsgate Hires 'A Quiet Place' Producer Aaron Janus as Senior VP of Production

    Lionsgate has hired Aaron Janus as its new senior vice president of production and promoted Meredith Wieck to the post of vice president of production.  Prior to Lionsgate, Janus served as Platinum Dunes’ head of development, where he oversaw filmmakers Brad Fuller, Andrew Form and Michael Bane. There, he brought in “A Quiet Place,” on [...]

  • Ang Lee Reveals First Look at

    Ang Lee on 'Gemini Man' and De-Aging Will Smith

    On paper, Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” is a standard-issue, shoot ’em up with Will Smith playing a deadly assassin who must battle a younger clone of himself. The explosions and gun battles aren’t what drew Lee to the project, even if they’re the reason that most people will show up at theaters when it opens [...]

  • Hopper Reserve

    Dennis Hopper's Dying Wish: His Own Strain of Marijuana

    Even as celebrity brands are starting to flood the emerging Cannabis market, Hopper Reserve stands out. The brand was launched by Marin Hopper, Dennis Hopper’s daughter from his marriage to Brooke Hayward. Hopper Reserve is a gram of California indoor-grown flower, two packs of rolling papers, a pair of matches and a trading card either [...]

  • Sean Clarke Aardman Staff Photography Bristol.Pic

    Aardman Appoints Sean Clarke as New Managing Director

    Aardman, the Oscar-winning animation studio behind “Chicken Run” and “Early Man,” has appointed Sean Clarke as its new managing director, replacing co-founder David Sproxton, who is stepping down after 43 years. Clarke has worked at the British studio for more than 20 years, including heading the international rights and marketing department for over a decade. [...]

  • The Antenna

    Toronto Film Review: 'The Antenna'

    Jump scares, creepy noises and the tease of hidden-from-view dangers are all fine. But a truly frightening horror film unsettles with more than its crafts, but instead through the vulnerability of defenseless people stuck with bad options only. First-time writer-director Orçun Behram’s highly stylized and mildly disturbing “The Antenna,” a metaphor on Turkey’s current ruling [...]

  • Ad Astra Box Office

    Box Office Battle: 'Ad Astra' Takes on 'Rambo: Last Blood' and 'Downton Abbey'

    “Hustlers” and “Good Boys” proved that even in the age of Marvel dominance and remake mania, movies that don’t exist within an established franchise can still be box office draws. Can “Ad Astra” continue that trend? The space drama — starring Brad Pitt and directed by James Gray — arrives on the big screen this [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein Accuser Lucia Evans Breaks

    Harvey Weinstein Accuser Lucia Evans Breaks Silence After D.A. Dropped Charge

    Lucia Evans gave a wrenching account on Tuesday of her efforts to hold Harvey Weinstein responsible for sexual assault, saying she felt betrayed after the Manhattan D.A.’s office dropped her allegations last year. Evans spoke to Variety after giving a speech at a conference on influencer fraud in Manhattan, making her first public comments on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content