Judy & Punch (2019)


That’s the way to do it!”
     In Mirrah Foulkes’s subversively feminist Judy & Punch, the wife beating, baby bashing, hangman hanging protagonist of the classic children’s seaside entertainment finally gets his comeuppance.
     And it’s been a long time coming: the Punch and Judy show originated during England’s Restoration Period in the mid-1660s… although the character of Mr. Punch dates back even further, to the 16th Century Neapolitan stock figure of Pulcinella. More recently, multiple borough councils in the U.K. have considered banning Punch and Judy shows on the basis that they condone domestic violence. The archive footage under Judy & Punch’s closing credits would refute the counter argument that kids love the violent puppet show: the supposed fans look positively traumatized.
     The theme of domestic violence (with a twist!) continues in Foulkes’s film, which stars “Ms.” Mia Wasikowska (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) as Judy and Australian actor “Mr.” Damon Herriman as her ambitious, alcoholic husband. Puppeteers both, our titular talents bring an anarchic and socially irresponsible energy to their marionette performances, warmly welcomed by a bawdy bar crowd.
     While entrusted with the care of their baby for a fleeting hour, the booze gets the better of our red-nosed punchman and tragedy strikes. And when Judy returns home and confronts her mildly-distraught husband, tragedy strikes again. Set in the fictitious town of Seaside (“Somewhere in the Country-side,” we’re told, and “No-where near the Sea”), the film is a dark, droll, and daring upending of the Punch and Judy zeitgeist.
     First-time feature director Foulkes—she appeared in the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom (2010) and drew accolades for her 2012 short Dumpy Goes to the Big Smoke—enriches the film with a solid sense of style, eliciting strong performances from her two leads in the process. The score, by François Tétaz, is suitably percussive, accented by Wiccan-styled chanting, and the production design (Josephine Ford) is impressive. Also of note is Stefan Duscio’s photography, a dense and foggy affair, often candlelit, highlighting the film’s recurring ruby reds and rouges.
     It’s not all fun and games, of course, but the stick-wielding and “foul-tempered, anti-authoritarian misogynist” has long deserved his day in court. And, with Judy & Punch, the swazzle-voiced miscreant’s desserts are irrevocably juicy, and just.
     On the strength of this bloody debut, Foulkes would appear to be a talent to watch.

(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth


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