One of the best advantages of the annual Beyond Fest is the opportunity to view independent horror films from the inane to the introspective and the other night I was fortunate enough to catch a film that was a cold fire of a story. JUDY & PUNCH, written and directed Mirrah Foulkes, (shown as part of Beyond Fest’s Huluween Theater screenings) brings up a salient question in current times.
Do you run from the wrong and wait for right to catch up? Or stay and fight when the odds have always been against you?
In the case of Judy, played by the ever ethereal Mia Wasikowska (Crimson Peak, Alice Through the Looking Glass), the answer isn’t as obvious as her shattered heart would make it seem. A little background, “Punch and Judy” is real a puppet show from the 1600’s consisting of Mr. Punch and his wife Judy wherein Mr. Punch ends up in a variety of ridiculous situations that he punches his way out of. In JUDY & PUNCH, this puppet show has found its way via the stalwart mother Judy and her theatrical self-absorbed husband Punch to the small town of Seaside. A town of annual stonings, witch burnings, hangings and mob rule. We open with beautiful Judy, corralling a crowd of drunkards to drop a coin in her stern and take a seat for the greatest puppeteer ever seen… Punch. Punch, pancaked in white make-up and vigor, takes the stage inviting the crowd to witness the best puppet show to exist.
The curtain opens and, to a growing beat of energy, Judy manipulates her marionette from near stillness into an incredible somersault across the stage… where it’s hit to the ground by Punch’s puppet. Foreshadowing at its best as Judy asks her husband after the show, “does Punch always have to hit them?”, Punch responds “It’s what the people want, my darling.”
True enough, this is that world. We move to a scene of three women on an outdoor stage, bound and waiting to be stoned to death. An affair treated like a holiday with townspeople handing each other rocks with wishes of “happy stoning day!”. Punch gleefully accepts the honor to “cast the first stone” as Judy stands in the crowd, her baby in her arms, half-heartedly holding a stone gazing in consternation at the three women, whose crimes range from “a rash on her back she tried to conceal” and “staring at the moon for an unusual amount of time”, wait to die. Conjecture on my part, but we are Judy. Watching with discomfort while a crowd reacts in violence out of fear.
It’s a film about weak wills and strength, heretics and believers, puppets and puppeteers. About our personal blind spots to the people close to us and the action to be taken when wrong doing has commenced. Judy, suffering Punch’s drunken irresponsibility and empty promises, is horribly, horribly wronged and saved only by pure luck and the existence of people outside the ring of ignorance in Seaside. But the pain she carries is too great for her to follow the advice to leave it all behind, burdening her with a choice. Seek revenge, seek justice or move on?
JUDY & PUNCH is a beautiful film with incredible pacing and witchy natural elements layered delicately on the dirt and blood of Seaside. Men catcall women to tears as a wind blows in from the trees. Many moments, as the tension built, I felt my hands reach to cover my mouth waiting for the blow I knew was coming. The town of Seaside, from the dank theater to the decaying manor Judy and Punch reside in with two ancient servants, was rich with detail. The Dark Woods ever present and the town teeming with life, the world never felt claustrophobic or fabricated. The performances sold every moment, particularly Damon Herriman and Gillian Jones as Dr. Goodtime. We all know the presence of Mia Wasikowska but Damon Herriman played a perfect balance of showman with monster. In one scene, his grappling with the evil he was committing versus his love of an audience was astounding. As for Gillian Jones, her small affectations as Dr. Goodtime made every moment land like a thunder clap.
JUDY & PUNCH is a story of choices. Do you try and change a group of people so terrified of being singled out they’ll hang their own for the distraction? Or do you run away and hope for the best on all sides? And, what if, that running away means leaving behind good people to be hurt?
Cast a stone or save a life?
The answer is in the film. And I encourage you to seek it out.