In the medieval town of Seaside (nowhere near the sea), puppeteers Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska) are a sensation, their rowdy theatre show playing to packed audiences who whoop with glee and bray with laughter at the antics of Punch’s misogynistic and murderous marionette alter ego who drinks and carouses with abandon, cooking his baby, beating and murdering his wife, the local policeman, the Devil himself. 

It’s Judy however who’s both the brains and talent behind the scenes, a talented puppeteer allowing her drunken egotistical braggart of a husband to bask in the limelight while she works behind the scenes to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. When Judy makes the mistake of trusting the drunken Punch to watch over their infant child, tragedy and violence ensue, Punch leaving the horrifically beaten Judy for dead in the woods.

But Judy is far from dead. Saved from a shallow grave by some outcast children, she is nursed back to health in their community of pariahs (mostly innocent women accused of witchcraft harassed and bullied out of the village), hidden deep within the deep, dark woods. And it’s there that Judy plots a terrible justice for Professor Punch…

With its roots in the Italian commedia dell’arte, Punch and Judy have been staples of our low brow culture since their British debut in the mid-1600s, diarist Samuel Pepys commenting on an early show he witnessed in Covent Garden, the amoral, murderous adventures of the psychopathic Mr Punch morphing over the centuries from bawdy adult entertainment for the masses into a show aimed, in a truly British paradox, primarily at children in the Victorian era staged at seaside venues, Punch the anarchic Lord of Misrule violently (and comedically) triumphing over his wife, the authorities and conventional morality.

Turning convention on it’s head, Australian writer/director Mirrah Foulkes’ feminist reimagining of the traditional tale, Judy & Punch, echoes the work of Angela Carter and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker even as it homages the visual style of Neil Jordan and the Hogarthian sensibilities of The League Of Gentleman, the Australian countryside standing in for a whimsical fantasy land of Ye Olde Once Upon A Time where Judy escapes her fate, surviving her beating and wreaking the revenge that is so richly deserved. 

It’s a bawdy, tonally uneven, adult fairytale that seeks to elicit something of the spirit of the old puppet shows, inviting us to gasp with shocked laughter at Punch’s crimes, the film tipping over into panto as the fair dinkum Aussie cast’s accents wander around the globe, often aping the dee-diddle-dee-dee, cod-Oirish accents beloved of posh boy folkies like Mumford & Sons, the chief culprit Damon Herriman’s vain, brutal, spoilt Punch, a swaggering bully, Herriman (seemingly this year’s face of Australian toxic masculinity after his repellent turn in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale) chewing the scenery like it’s the sausages Punch covets so badly, with only the ever reliable Mia Wasikowska creating anything like a character you care for before a Grand Guignol last act that sees Punch gets what’s coming to him.

Funny, knowing and just a little too pleased with itself, Judy & Punch is a visually vibrant, blackly comic, thoroughly demented, adult fairytale that proves: “That’s the way to do it!”   

Movie Review: Judy & Punch
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