JUDY & PUNCH / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: MIRRAH FOULKES / STARRING: MIA WASIKOWSKA, DAMON HERRIMAN, BENEDICT HARDIE / RELEASE DATE: 22ND NOVEMBER
This dark, comic cinematic distorting of ye olde "English" puppet show is an intriguing subversion of the play’s central concept, which was irrefutably ripe for renovation. Thanks to actor turned writer / director Mirrah Foulkes, Punch and Judy have been granted film life in a grubby, provocative and vivacious escapade, entrenched in a realism that enriches the original show's gaudy theatrics while twisting our perspectives of its controversial origin.
Dating back to 17th century Italy (with roots in the 16th century commedia dell’arte), the solo operated Punch and Judy puppet show became a UK tradition during Victorian Britain before blossoming into a cultural phenomenon throughout the next century. Shows were staged on UK seafronts and, once upon a time, in London's Covent Garden by Italian puppeteers, yet are presently more often found at carnivals and fun fairs.
Now, finally, the squawking marionettes make their live action debut (kind of). Mirrah Foulkes has twisted the classic tale, title and characters into a more Judy-led outing that sees the tables turned on her abusive, titular counterpart in this raucous, metaphorical feminist fable.
The 17th century story’s set in the English town of Seaside (which is "nowhere near the sea"), where business partners wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and husband Punch (Damon Herriman) stage a pub-based puppet show for pissed-up locals. After relaying dreams of expanding their “art” for a wider audience, a family tragedy suddenly turns the couple against each other. Judy is injured and forced into hiding then taken in by a furtive, forest-dwelling community where she recovers while plotting her return to Seaside and retaliation against the town that turned her back on her, while also quietly scheming revenge against Punch, who lied, attacked Judy and then left her for dead.
Foulkes extrapolates the show’s original facets (violence, bawdy humour, babies, crocodiles, sausages and hangmen) to present them at the forefront, out of "puppet show" context. Most of the components are now incredibly controversial. Their once cultural commonplace is highlighted by the fact that they formed the content of and basis for a family event, making Foulkes' film all the more pertinent. Foulkes doesn't sugar-coat the show's original tropes which, through the "limitations of" their medium, were already totally sanitised. Instead she subverts them into style-defining facets. Making the story more thought provoking and apt for modern audiences, Judy & Punch features domestic violence, alcoholism, social subjugation and misogyny in bleak, day-lit repugnance.
The comedy is interesting but also massively off-kilter as it’s hard to map laughter and realism into scenes featuring domestic abuse, public execution, torture, killing and witchcraft (without going down the Dan Mazer route). Yet, while keeping with tradition, Foulkes compartmentalises: placing (next to the aforementioned) wry slapstick and detrimental dialogue delivered with a gnawed to a near-severed tongue, dislodged flaccidly in the cheek, like a muscular slug OD’ing on steroids. A stoning scene threatens to curtail J&P into permanent Python territory, while quaint supporting characters, including a doe-eyed copper and an old couple wrongly accused of murder, make Foulkes' debut both endearing and weird.
Punch is portrayed to petrifying perfection as a philandering, rage-fired boor while Judy is the anguished but tenacious heroine who battles societal and matrimonial hardships in attempt to challenge the system that shaped them. Wasikowska and Herriman are incredible in the leads and Foulkes makes for a fascinating director. While Judy & Punch has a slightly slack structure and lacks a commanding genre / identity, its imperfections and refusal to adhere also make it interesting.
Foulkes has crafted an audacious, rowdy and thought-provoking rollick that derails after bobbing due to its off-balance melding of surreal, misplaced slapstick humour with distressing drama, mystery, horror and defiant violence. It’s also an exciting, visceral parable about a marriage maintained by profession, tradition and ragged marionettes, which forces us to re-evaluate our cultural heritage.