Mia Wasikowska

Judy & Punch


I grew up in a seaside town, where Punch & Judy shows were a familiar sight. I rarely watched one all the way through, but the characters have long been familiar. I like the tawdry end-of-pier atmosphere, the red-striped tent, the enthusiastic glove-puppeteering, the silly swazzle voice. I’m less drawn to the storyline, such as it is, especially to Mr Punch’s endless bashing of Judy, his long-suffering wife.

In Mirrah Foulkes’ feminist reimagining, Judy (Mia Wasikowska) seeks revenge. She and Punch (Damon Herriman) are both puppets and puppeteers, doomed to live their avatars’ mistakes. They’re skulking in Judy’s home town of Seaside (nowhere near the sea), holed up in her ancestral home, hoping to be spotted by talent scouts so they can move on to the big city. But their undoubted skills are marred by Punch’s alcoholism and unreliability: he can’t be trusted to look after their baby, nor to keep away from his mistress, Polly (Lucy Velik). But, when Punch’s selfish ineptitude wreaks real tragedy, Judy realises she’s had enough…

The action takes place in a vague, non-specific, sort-of-seventeenth-century England, and the set is sumptuous, all fairy tale turrets and higgledy-piggledy stone streets. But the picturesque streets belie a dark undercurrent, where the unctuous Mr Frankly (played with evident relish by Tom Budge) presides over regular stonings, hangings and banishments, punishments meted out to those hapless souls – usually women – who don’t quite conform to the town’s twisted rules.

There’s a change of pace as Judy finds kindred souls in the outcasts living in the nearby woods, an army of dispossessed women. In these sections, we see an alternative: a communal, accepting way of life, where everyone works for the common good. Interestingly, most of the humour is in the darker, Seaside-based scenes; in the woods, everything is more serious and contemplative.

The marionettes are important; their imagery is compelling. Glove puppets are usually used in real Punch & Judy shows (marionettes were used originally when they came to Britain from Italy in the 1600s, but were replaced by glove puppets soon afterwards). Marionettes are far more expressive, and their strings a well-worn metaphor for a lack of autonomy.

I like this film. It’s not subtle, but neither is its source material, and the gaudy slapstick of a Punch & Judy show is captured, even as it’s being subverted. Okay, so some of the accents are all over the place, veering from Yorkshire to Ireland by way of Jamaica within a single sentence,  and I don’t really buy the outcasts’ hippy Tai Chi sessions. But Wasikowska is convincing as the wronged woman, and Herriman horribly charming as her despicable husband. Daisy Axon makes a strong impression as Scotty, an outcast child who dreams of a forever home, and Benedict Hardie is excellent as bumbling policeman, Derrick. All in all, a sprightly, eye-opening affair.

4 stars

Susan Singfield



Crimson Peak

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When I last reviewed a Guillermo del Toro movie, I expressed the fervent wish that he would abandon the thick-eared nonsense he was currently engaged on – in which giant robots repeatedly thumped reptilian monsters in the head – and went back to the kind of cinematic terrain he’d mined so brilliantly in Pan’s Labyrinth. While Crimson Peak isn’t exactly that, it’s about a million miles away from Pacific Rim, which is something to be extremely thankful for.

What we have here is a gothic ghost story and if we’re looking for film precedents, maybe the best of Hammer Horror, as directed by Terrence Fisher or Roger Corman’s 60s interpretations of the works of Edger Allan Poe, might be the appropriate places to look. Crimson Peak is a gorgeous piece of film making – the sumptuous look of the production, the painterly evocations of the settings are a cineaste’s delight, while the story exhibits all the conventions of the true gothic horror story – histrionic and compelling in equal measure.

Aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) (note the tribute to Hammer horror actor, Peter, right there) meets up in New York with baronet and would-be inventor, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and immediately falls under his spell, despite the misgivings of her rich industrialist father, Carter (Jim Beaver). Almost before we can draw breath, Carter has been brutally murdered (a typically Del Toro scene of extreme violence) and Edith is whisked away to Sharpe’s remote Cumbrian family pile, Allerdale Hall, a derelict mansion that makes the Amityville House look like a cabin in Happy Valley.  Mysterious Sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, struggling a bit with her English accent) goes along for the ride. The house itself is an extraordinary piece of design, as much a character as any of the human actors, and Edith soon discovers that there are secrets hidden in its shadows – secrets that are being explained by ghostly apparitions.

It’s not quite a perfect production – there are one or two lines of clunky dialogue that invoke involuntary smirks and, like so many other directors, del Toro needs to learn the basic lesson that CGI ghosts are simply not as terrifying as mere actors dressed up in rags and makeup – but this is the kind of filmmaking that hasn’t been attempted in a very long time, and mostly it pays off handsomely. Literate viewers will spot references to Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw and a whole collection of other literary and filmic references, but the best thing about Crimson Peak is the sumptuous look of it. Del Toro’s origins as an illustrator are writ large in every scene. Curiously though, while every imaginable trope of gothic horror is on display here – clockwork dolls, moths, mysterious labyrinths and ghastly spectres – it’s the occasional excesses of physical violence on display that scare us much more than any of the supernatural elements.

This is sterling stuff, though, and should keep del Toro’s legions of fans happy while we wait to see what he will do next.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney




This film came and went at the cinema without making much of a splash. Catching up with it on DVD, I found myself wishing I’d managed to see it on the big screen, because its dazzling depictions of the Australian outback are one its strongest features and there are scenes here that are genuinely jaw dropping.

It’s based on the autobiography of Robyn Davidson, who as a teenager in the 1970’s, decided to walk across the Australian desert, (a trip of some 1,700 miles which took her nine months to complete), with just four camels and a dog for company. Quite why she chose to do so remains something of a mystery, as Davidson, as portrayed by Mia Wasikowska, remains something of an enigma throughout, a young woman who shuns the company of her peers and clearly possesses incredible courage and determination. Her only human company for the trip are encounters with aborigines and the occasional meeting along the route with photo journalist, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). His interest in the trip obtained Davidson’s funding from National Geographic and he is required to provide photographic evidence, but apart from one furtive sexual encounter in the desert, he’s mostly treated with the general contempt she doles out to everyone else.

There’s not much of a story arc here. The film unfolds slowly, almost hypnotically, as Davidson walks further and further into the wilderness, suffering thirst, sun burn, hallucinations  and a series of flashbacks based around her troubled childhood. To its credit, it never palls and by the conclusion, you do feel as though you’ve been on the trip yourself. A series of photographs that accompany the credits show just how realistic the film is, with both Wasikowska and Driver looking uncannily like their real life counterparts.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney