FILM | REVIEWS
BLACK COMEDY JUDY & PUNCH (15) 106min ●●●●●
The Punch and Judy puppet show has enjoyed a long spell within British cultural consciousness. More recently, it’s been criticised for its trivialisation of misogynistic violence. The debut feature from Australian actress-turned-filmmaker Mirrah Foulkes is a fictional retelling of the show’s origin story, set in a gloriously off-kilter approximation of the late-Middle Ages British Isles.
It finds experienced puppeteer Judy (Mia Wasikowska) increasingly concerned by her husband Punch (Damon Herriman), whose propensity for drunkenness and aggression leeches into their puppet shows. When one alcohol-fuelled moment of irresponsibility ends in tragedy, Judy is compelled to seek vengeance.
There’s anachronistic detail galore in the self-aware dialogue, electronica-infused score, characters practising tai chi and tongue-in-cheek character names. There are some stumbles, including an unnecessarily didactic closing speech that destroys any semblance of subtlety. Regardless, Foulkes’s clarity of vision and mastery of tonal balance is striking, and she confidently establishes herself with this lively twist on a well-known tale. (Sophie Willard) ■ General release from Fri 22 Nov.
BIOPIC – CIVIL RIGHTS HARRIET (TBC) 125min ●●●●●
Though a celebrated figure in American history, many in the UK will not be familiar with abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery in Maryland, and in 1849 escaped. Tubman subsequently carried out numerous rescue missions to help family, friends and others flee. This biopic is the first theatrical film to tell her story, and director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), who co-wrote the script, has endeavoured to create an audience-friendly adventure, focusing on Tubman’s years as a young adult. It’s rather formulaic, albeit nonetheless impressive thanks to Cynthia Erivo’s robust central presence. The London-born Erivo brings gravitas and steeliness to this compelling woman, though Leslie Odom Jr and Janelle Monáe are underserved in supporting roles.
Lemmons understands the tonal balance required for the
material but, with a lot of narrative ground to cover, the script is stretched thin across several key events, hurrying through them instead of investing them with the depth they deserve. Ultimately this ends up feeling like merely a surface-level exploration of an extraordinary individual, but it will certainly ensure that Tubman’s heroism finally gets the attention it deserves. (Sophie Willard) ■ General release from Fri 22 Nov.
MURDER MYSTERY KNIVES OUT (12A) 130min ●●●●●
Helming a billion-dollar Star Wars movie buys you a hell of a lot of brownie points, but if this is Rian Johnson indulging himself artistically he’s at least had the decency to make it bloody good fun. With Knives Out he assembles a high-calibre cast for a wickedly knowing, flamboyantly bitchy take on the whodunnit.
The victim is Christopher Plummer’s mystery writer Harlan Thrombey, found with his throat slit at the outset in an apparent, outlandish suicide. As Johnson delights in the décor of Harlan’s macabre country manor – filled with nightmarish knick-knacks – the motives of the author’s family members pile up. A bunch of needy, grasping backstabbers, they’re played by Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Chris Evans.
Despite the big names, the story swirls around lesser-known thesp Ana de Armas, as Harlan’s devoted nurse. This timid sparrow is taken under the wing of puffed-up private detective Benoit Blanc; like Poirot crossed with Matthew McConaughey, he’s there on the dollar of a mystery employer. Blanc is amusingly embodied by Daniel Craig, who returns to the comedic territory of Logan Lucky, donning a Deep South accent and visibly relishing each and every utterance. Featuring the ‘dumbest car chase of all time’, a torturous doughnut analogy and a glorious final sight gag, it’s a glossy, perfectly pitched production, put together with spry style and an equal desire to honour and subvert the tropes of the genre; an early reveal represents a risk that gives the film a different flavour. ‘That’s certainly not what I was expecting,’ one character scoffs. This might not be entirely what audiences expect either, but it’s all the better for it. (Emma Simmonds) ■ General release from Wed 27 Nov.
HISTORICAL DRAMA THE NIGHTINGALE (TBC) 136min ●●●●● Australian director Jennifer Kent follows The Babadook with a historical horror-show that confronts the atrocities committed during the colonisation of her home country. Set in Van Diemen’s Land in 1825, Aisling Franciosi plays sweet-voiced Irish singer Clare, a convicted thief and new mother forced to entertain a ragtag group of English soldiers. After enduring unimaginable loss and injury at the hands of these men, led by Sam Claflin’s sadistic Hawkins, Clare heads deep into the outback with murder in mind, accompanied by reluctant Aboriginal Australian tracker
Billy (newcomer Baykali Ganambarr).
As Claflin bristles with dangerous levels of entitlement, it recalls his performance in The Riot Club, with white male privilege there and here spilling over into violence. Franciosi makes for an astonishingly determined heroine; although prejudice mars her early interactions with Billy, they find common ground in their shared humanity and hatred of the English. Kent immerses you in their agony in a film that’s often hard to watch. But that’s the point. And for those who hark back to the good ol’ days of Empire, it’s a lesson in the brutal reality of that particular delusion. (Emma Simmonds) ■ Selected release from Fri 29 Nov.
94 THE LIST 1 Nov 2019–31 Jan 2020