If you see only one Australian-made production about a 17th-century English master puppeteer and his equally masterful wife this year, you should absolutely seek out Judy & Punch, the skillfully made feature debut from actress-turned writer/director Mirra Foulkes. Set in the landlocked English country town of Seaside, the film centers on Prof. Punch (Damon Herrimon, gifted and prolific Australian actor, probably best known for his recent portrayal of Charles Manson in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood), who runs a traveling marionette show with his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska, of Alice in Wonderland and Crimson Peak), who is the secret weapon in each performance.
The couple do a variation on the classic Punch & Judy show where a male puppet has a big stick and frequently beats a female one with it. It gets big laughs, especially from the men in the audience, and in Seaside, even more so since the town has a regular “religious” ritual in which women who are accused of being witches are stoned to death by the entire population. Punch is asked by the star-struck locals if he will throw out the ceremonial first stone, and he happily obliges.
It turns out that Seaside is Judy’s hometown, and she met Punch when he first came to town; this is their return engagement. Now they are married and have a small baby, and have moved back to town hoping to establish roots and perhaps be discovered by talent scouts that apparently travel throughout the land looking for the next big thing. Although there’s no indication given that Punch has a history of actual violence, he does have a drinking problem that he has curbed as a promise to his wife after their baby was born. He slips back into old habits rather quickly (including being in the regular company of a local woman), leaving Judy at home with the baby and their two elderly servants, both of whom took care of her when she was young.
Judy & Punch has a twisted, foul-mouthed, and utterly dark sense of humor, but that doesn’t mean it’s afraid to take on an often serious and rather violent tone when necessary. One afternoon when Judy is shopping, Punch is in charge of their baby. Through a series of mishaps, brought on mostly by his drinking, the baby is hurled from a window several stories high and dies. When Judy returns home, Punch attempts to play off his bad deed, saying “What’s done is done; let’s move on,” and she reacts by wailing on him until he takes a fire poker and clubs her with it several times until she appears lifeless. To cover up his drunken crimes, Punch drags his wife’s body into the woods, buries her in a shallow grave, and begins the process of using the town’s simple-mindedness to help him find the “real” killers, whom he claims are the old servants that he suspects are witches.
Although you might not suspect it, Judy & Punch is a passionate celebration of outcasts, those who live on the fringe of society for no other reason than society doesn’t know what to do with them. There is a group of mostly women living in the woods outside of Seaside, all of whom would probably qualify as witches by the town’s exceedingly loose definition, so they stay hidden and make sure they are fairly portable in case they need to pick up and leave in a hurry. This group plays a key role in the events that transpire during the disappearance/murder investigation, whether they realize it or not. Judy’s work comes into play in the film’s final act, and Wasikowska’s fiery performance (not unlike her recent work in Damsel) drives the film toward its note-perfect conclusion that will both shock and delight viewers. Herrimon is a bit more showy, but that fits in with the nature of his character, who is all eccentric performance and little actual heart.
The movie has a pitch-black, fairy tale quality to it, with a sense of humor in a similar shade and touches of magical realism and a feminist spine holding it all up. It’s entirely likely that your stomach will turn while you’re stifling laughter at the same time, but that’s what makes Judy & Punch unique in the current cinematic landscape. And frankly, it would stand out in a more crowded theatrical environment as well. It’s certainly worth a view, if only because it’s a welcome change of pace.
Judy & Punch is available to stream through the Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa” program.
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