The strongest thing I recall from venturing last year to see Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘The Favourite’ was how deft he was in the creation of a period drama with a blackly comedic tint. Anachronistically playful with certain stereotypes and assumptions about the eccentricities of English life in the 18th century, he managed to carve out a mad masterpiece that painted the entire nation as something of a wide-open Bedlam, from the monarchy and its direct servants right down to the lowliest peasant, all cunning and duplicitous, as well as stark raving bonkers.
In her directorial debut, Mirrah Foulkes has trodden along similar lines, utilising the puppet show Punch & Judy (an English tradition that you’d only be ignorant of if you’re of a troglodytic bent) to weave an utterly crazy tale of gender politics, pre-Enlightenment superstition, mob rule and revenge. And while it has a modicum of clout and an initially strong pace, it, unfortunately, careers off the rails into nothingness.
The town of Seaside (as the film is quick to remind us several times, it is actually nowhere near the sea) is a thoroughly bizarre place. All of its denizens seem to be perpetually drunk, gleefully taking part in horrifying pastimes of publicly slaughtering those suspected of witchcraft (these people literally smile in passing with a cheery reciprocation of ”Happy Stoning Day!”) and then winding down in the evenings at the local playhouse where they gawp in amazement at the talents of Professor Punch (Damon Herriman), a megalomaniacal puppeteer whose ultra-dark hit show has been named for himself and his beloved (Mia Wasikowska). The film has revisioned the show as his creation, the one that will see him as a big name one day in ‘The Big Smoke’ (although this nickname for London didn’t emerge until about 200 years later in reality), and, even more disturbingly, he appears to have modelled it on his own personality and domestic life.
Judy & Punch are both Irish commoners, and various stereotypes are used to amusing effect with regards to the typical narrative dynamic of the puppet show, Judy being portrayed as a fierce and headstrong Celtic maiden, and her husband being a violent and unpredictable alcoholic. Their dialogue is replete with his promises to sober up and be a better provider to her and their baby daughter, as well as plenty of ‘fecks’ and ‘shoites’ for good measure. Wasikowska and Herriman’s performances are consistently strong throughout, and the film runs with a very robust sense of humour and menace right up until the point that the puppet show usually commences (Punch’s mistreatment of his family and the policeman is followed by a final-boss battle with an executioner, a huge crocodile, or Satan himself). From then on, it transforms into a bizarre revenge drama centring on what it means to be a social pariah, the place of women in society, and hearsay and ignorance being used to pervert the course of justice. This tonal shift and a change in pace are what ultimately proves to be its undoing.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a film substantively commenting on societal ills and the fight to end them, but it isn’t going to work particularly well if there is no outset facilitation for it. What begins as an irreverent, pitch-black comedy that appears to be transferring the age-old Punch & Judy set up to the screen needs to stay on course, and there is no reason that you couldn’t retain the ‘wronged woman gets even’ aspect and still have it be a tight and satisfactory picture. What you don’t do is start venturing down the same path as the terrible Guy Ritchie rendition of ‘Robin Hood’, and turn something with a promise of clever and snappy fun into a try-hard Spielberg-lite movie, excising the initial hilarity for annoying orchestral interludes that are meant to swell you up, and clumsy, ‘I’m-not-gonna-take-this-anymore’ monologues complete with protagonist standing on platform before crowd. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, don’t worry, there is also the band-of-forest-dwelling-outsiders-who-look-and-act-weird-but-they’re-ok-really as a cherry on top.
It is always nothing short of frustrating for a film to have such a strong opening, cementing the path for a suspenseful and original tale, only to peter out with lacklustre writing. It is crammed to the hilt with cliched, archetypal characters who are never given any real meat to grind into their respective contributions, peppered throughout a dead-horse story that culminates in a dispassionate and boring denouement, which is fucked even further into a cocked hat when one character verbatim rips off dialogue from Gladiator (???). It looks nice, but it’s a no from me.