The great irony of Donald Trump claiming to be victimized by endless political “witch-hunts,” is that the popular etymology of the term arguably dates to possibly the greatest instance of 17th Century misogyny, the Salem Witch Trials, which saw hundreds of women wrongly accused of witchery and at least 20 hanged to their deaths.
In that very same century, just across the Atlantic, were born the characters of Punch and Judy, a Restoration-era puppet duo that eventually became world renowned. The shows were also rife with misogynistic violence, something that carried on mostly unquestioned in updated interpretations, until now the #MeToo zeitgeist has made it ripe for reassessment.
And so it is that the exhilarating new film Judy and Punch (note, intentional reverse billing) turns the story on its head, presenting it as a kind of feminist revenge tale, and doing it, if we might say, exceedingly effectively. Indeed, Mia Wasikowska (of Alice in Wonderland fame) plays a Judy that is beaten up and left for dead by her abusive, alcoholic husband Punch – who has also accidentally killed their baby. But she lives to exact retribution.
By complete coincidence, the story is by Executive Producers Tom and Lucy Punch, brother and sister. The former brought it to Vice – where he was employed – several years ago, as they had just launched a new film division, and seemed to be the right ideological home for their vision.
“We were really interested in the show’s extreme violence for comedic purposes,” explains Lucy, also a successful actress. “I had a Punch and Judy puppet show at my 7th birthday party, and I remember us all giggling and laughing at Punch whacking his wife and throwing his kid around. It’s crazy and horribly inappropriate for children!”
Of course, the 21st Century feminist context meant that in any new version, Punch would surely need to at last meet his comeuppance. And Australian actor Damon Herriman’s portrayal of the mean-spirited puppeteer is so vile as to deserve nothing less. Or as Lucy puts it, “Time’s up, Punch!”
In fact, the employment of screenwriter-director Mirrah Foulkes – already a Vice veteran – saw to Judy and Punch (which opens in the UK this Friday, November 22) being a distinctly Aussie affair. And Wasikowska’s involvement is certainly crucial to its emotional puissance, as she effortlessly transforms from a dutiful theater partner and wife/mother into a laser focused vessel of vengeance, carefully calculating her husband’s eventual punishment – which is ruthless, but not accomplished without a sense of humor.
The source material is, of course, very British – but as Tom is quick to point out, Aussies and Brits share “a similar cultural and comedic sensibility.” He also observes that UK interpretations of Punch and Judy tend to be “darker and weirder.” Yet what makes the film resonate so resoundingly is the unambiguous message of empowerment – even if current liberal doctrine doesn’t necessarily always openly embrace flat out revenge (though if you don’t find yourself cheering at the ending, you might want to look into a sense-of-justice transplant.)
One could hardly ignore the film’s keen prescience, either – considering they began developing it nearly a decade ago. For instance, when Judy questions Punch on the degree of violence in their puppet shows, he snaps back, “They like it punchy and they like it smashy” – which words surely could have been uttered by President 45 at some point in qualifying the audiences at his own rallies. As well, Judy’s fierce self-determination would seem tailor made for the #MeToo era, though the genesis of the project obviously far predates the movement.
Tom confirms, “There are lots of relevant allegories within the movie to some of the phenomena that have been sweeping not just America but the whole globe. So it now seems strangely prophetic in that respect.”
One can also readily draw parallels to the current global plight of immigrants and refugees. You see, the battered and broken Judy is discovered in the woods and taken in by a group of “heretics” and outcasts (mostly women), who show her kindness and nurse her into fighting fitness – even as they all risk imprisonment or worse if they are discovered by the townspeople, for suspected sorcery and witchcraft.
Notably, Stefan Duscio’s cinematography perfectly captures that ever-present sense of doomfulness, without ever seeming too crushingly ominous – especially in the hauntingly filmed forest scenes.
“The repeated shots of the swaying trees in silhouette to the night sky,” Lucy observes, “are so beautiful and menacing, creating tension, and a sense of foreboding.”
But ultimately it is Judy’s potent, inspirational closing speech, where she howls in judgment at the villagers, “What is a witch but someone who lives just outside your blinkered view of the world?,” that acts as a timeless feminist rallying cry, one that could surely reverberate through the ages.
As Lucy puts it, “A witch is a strong, powerful woman who speaks out, speaks up and won’t back down. And that’s scary and threatening for certain people.”
As for what’s next for the pair, Lucy’s acting career could hardly be more brisk at the moment. She recently played Esmé Squalor in A Series of Unfortunate Events, has a recurring role in the series Motherland, and also starred alongside Emma Thompson in the late-summer indie film How to Build a Girl, based on the novel by Caitlin Moran. But she and her brother are both active, very busy producers as well.
“We’ve got a bunch of things in development,” Tom reveals, “including a few new feature films that we hope to be announcing in more detail soon. But next up is a short film and installation piece directed by [British artist] Dinos Chapman, that we will be showcasing at Spring Studios in New York next year.”