Not for the first time I’m left wondering how it is that Australian films have become so bleak and brutal. The latest example is Mirrah Foulkes’s debut feature, Judy and Punch, which has atttacted a lot of specious praise and been nominated for umpteen awards.
The reasons, as far as I can tell, are as follows: 1. All Australian films get praised by those who feel the need to “support” the local industry. 2. It is a fable about domestic violence that allows the audience only one way to turn. 3. It is a feminist revenge film – a genre steeped in righteous self-justification. 4. It is an implicit critique of political populism, one of the blights of our age. 5. It features Mia Wasikowska, a talented and sympathetic actor. 6. Mirrah Foulkes is herself known as an actor, and there’s a natural desire to see her succeed as a director.
It’s easy to make a hypothetical case for this movie but hard to sustain it after an actual viewing. The initial idea, that the age-old ritual of the Punch and Judy puppet show may be used as the basis for a feminist parable, has a lot of promise. From the 1600s onwards, children and adults have watched Mr. Punch beating up his wife and other characters. It highlights the connection between comedy and violence in its rawest form, as the audience laughs and gasps at each explosive attack.
Seen through a contemporary lens Mr Punch’s antics constitute a celebration of wife beating. The broader implication is that violence is the best, most efficient way to solve any problem.
Foulkes sets her story in a time identified as the 17th century, in a landlocked European town incongruously called Seaside. Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) is a local celebrity, known for the robust puppet shows he puts on with the assistance of his wife, Judy (Mia Wasikowska). These shows seem to be getting more “punchy and smashy” all the time, as the audience loves watching Punch go beserk.
The town’s other great entertainment is the public stoning of witches, regularly identified among local women due to some trifling offence or oddity.
Punch is a drunkard and a bully who seems to survive exclusively on sausages. Some symbolism here? Judy is trying to dry him out and get their show back on track. Along with two elderly servants she takes care of the house, and nurses a small baby. It doesn’t require much imagination to realise that Punch is going to get drunk and do something diabolical. His crimes will be as bad as can be, encompassing wife, baby, servants and small dog.
Judy finds herself rescued by a bunch of women who have fled the town to avoid charges of witchcraft, and now live concealed in the forest. Like the fugitives in Tom Cowan’s Journey Among Women (1977), they’ve gone feral and found new powers of self-reliance.
Judy and Punch often comes across as an attempt at an old-fashoned fairy tale in the bloodthirsty manner of the Brothers Grimm, but Foulkes has added a raft of contemporary ideological undercurrents. Although the original idea might have had merit the plot and the dialogue are lacklustre, and occasionally cringeworthy. From about the half-way mark the story follows a predictable course. None of the characters comes alive, although Herriman makes strenuous efforts as the villain. After playing the sadistic Sergeant Ruse in his previous screen appearance, in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, he must be looking forward to a nice rom com.
There are all sorts of ‘clever’ things in this movie that gave me a feeling of creeping embarrassment – from the rebel women doing some version of Tai Chi in the bush, to a musical score that veers from J.S.Bach to Leonard Cohen – both of them wildly out of place.
Although the movie is inspired by a puppet show the attempt to mix slapstick comedy with sickening violence is hard to take. One gets the impression that the death of a child is presented as black comedy. As the story progresses it seems that Foulkes comes to endorse Punch’s idea about violence being the best problem solver.
I can live with “bleak and brutal” if a movie gets all the basics right. The Nightingale or Snowtown (2011) are gruelling experiences but possessed of consistent production values, well-crafted stories and scripts that draw viewers into the imaginative world of the film.
Judy and Punch is a movie with a message about male violence that gives the audience little to hold on to other than a series of disjointed scenarios that reiterate obvious points. It’s a project that would have benefited from some tough criticism in the developmental stage, but instead it has an air of self-congratulation. It’s another product of an Australian film industry in which creative complacency is not only accepted but celebrated.
These criticisms are far less applicable to recent Australian documentaries. The latest, highly-recommendable example is Liam Firminger’s Suzi Q – a nostalgic bio-pic of diminutive rock star Suzi Quatro, who emerges from this film as a figure of towering stature – especially in Australia, which provided her most dedicated fan base. Quatro broke down all sorts of barriers for women in a male-dominated rock culture. We get a clear sense of that era in a scene in which she’s expected to wave her denim-clad backside at the audience before sitting down for a TV interview.
Although Quatro inspired waves of female musicians she was scorned by her family in Detroit, apparently because she made her sisters feel like failures. Unlike those stars who grow old disgracefully, the 69-year-old Quatro comes across as an intelligent, eminently likeable person. If you want to see a movie that says something memorable and positive about women, Suzi Q should be a clear preference over Judy and Punch.
Judy and Punch
Written & directed by Mirrah Foulkes
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Lucy Velik, Benedict Hardie, Tom Budge, Terry Norris, Kiruna Stamell, Daisy Axon, Gillian Jones, Virginia Gay
Australia, rated MA 15+, 105 mins
Written & directed by Liam Firmager
Starring Suzi Quatro, Patti Quatro, Nancy Quatro, Len Tuckey, Mike Chapman, Henry Winkler, Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Alice Cooper
Australia, rated M, 98 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 30 November, 2019