Judy & Punch review: a larger-than-life battle of the sexes in a timeless funfair world

Mirrah Foulkes’s wildly stylised feature dramatises the off-stage violence at a small-town sideshow, with Damon Herriman as a thuggish puppetmaster and Mia Wasikowska as his vengeful wife.

Anton Bitel

Mia Wasikowska as Judy in Judy <span class="amp">&</span> Punch

Mia Wasikowska as Judy in Judy & Punch

Traditionally performed, since 1825, by a solo artist with hand puppets, Punch & Judy is a show that sets a series of stock characters – the baby, the constable, the crocodile, Toby the Dog, the Devil, Mr Scaramouche, the ghost and so on – into violent, literally slapstick confrontation with Mr Punch, who clubs to death all comers (including his wife Judy) for knockabout laughs.

The very title of Australian writer-director Mirrah Foulkes’ feature debut Judy & Punch suggests a reorientation of the show’s usual focus, with Judy coming to the fore. Punch may still be a manipulative killer, but here his wife gets a rejoinder to his drunken and violent ways. The film is not only the tale of Judy’s revenge on her husband and the reform of her hometown, but also an attempt to reconstitute all the anarchic depravities of Punch & Judy into something with a salutary moral of sorts.

The emphatically landlocked community of Seaside – presumably so named in extradiegetic allusion to the piers where Punch & Judy shows have traditionally been staged in England – is a Rabelaisian locus of small-town values and prejudices, where drinking, whoring and mob rule mix toxically with judgemental puritanism, and where anyone deemed other is publicly stoned as a witch or forever cast out. Here, alcoholic Punch (Damon Herriman) has top – indeed only – billing on the marionette show for which his kindly, more talented wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska) does most of the heavy lifting. Judy complains that the show is becoming too “punchy” and “smashy”, but those very qualities are key to its popularity with the townsfolk, reflecting and informing who they are – as well as who Punch is: unable to resist the temptation to become ever more like his thuggish onstage character, he makes himself right at home amid Seaside’s vices, manipulating everyone around him like puppets into scapegoating others for his crimes.

Staging and restaging the notorious puppet show and tracing its influence on its jeering, baying spectators, Judy & Punch offers a hardhitting dialectic about the relationship between art and audience, man and woman, vice and virtue, as Punch’s staged mean-spiritedness leaks out into his household and neighbourhood, and Judy repeatedly struggles to find a nonviolent resolution to what is after all her story too. From this theatricalised thesis and antithesis, Foulkes draws an uncomfortable synthesis in which a sort of harmonious order is restored, but nonetheless the show must go on – and on it goes, in a one-man, hand-puppet form that suggests the film’s narrative is an origin story for, as much a deconstruction of, Punch & Judy’s madcap conventions.

Sensationally stylised and larger than life, Judy & Punch is set in a make-believe carnivalesque wonderland, and in a timeless era where witch hunts and hangings sit alongside tai chi exercises, with Leonard Cohen’s Who by Fire on the soundtrack. This fairytale past merges allegorically with the present day, even as patriarchal and matriarchal principles endlessly continue to shake sticks at each other.

 

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