Friday, June 05, 2020

Judy & Punch: Puppeteers Act Like Puppets

They were the puppets who put the slap in slapstick (and the stick). Punch & Judy shows are now rather infamous for their mirthful treatment of domestic abuse, but traditional shows always ended badly for the reprehensible Punch. He would be lucky to merely wind up at the gallows, because more often than not, the devil himself came to claim Punch’s loutish soul. Arguably, this feminist morality play lets its meta Punch puppeteer off easy because it lacks the fire and brimstone of its way-back-when inspiration, but what unfolds is still not exactly subtle. This time, Judy will have her revenge in screenwriter-director Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy & Punch, which releases today on-demand.

“Professor” Punch and his wife Judy have returned to the 16th Century town of Seaside (far from the sea, according to the film’s running joke), after his mean drunk temper forced them to abandon more profitable engagements. The truth is, Judy is the better puppeteer, but she lets Punch take the bows for their Punch & Judy shows. Unfortunately, Punch cannot help reverting to his old drunken ways, but this time his negligent behavior causes the death of their infant son (although this is a staple of old school Punch & Judy shows, it is rather shocking to see it in a live action film).

When confronted, the guilty Punch lashes out and kills her too, or so he assumes. It turns out Punch doesn’t quite finish the job. However, after disposing of her almost but not entirely lifeless body, he capitalizes on Seaside’s superstition and intolerance, framing the elderly servants who were hosting he and Judy for his own crimes.

Foulkes struggles to find the right tone throughout J&P, which might be why the attempts at black humor only land sporadically. On the other hand, she incorporates the narrative elements of traditional Punch & Judy shows in clever ways. She also ties in all together into a satisfying third act that serves as a contemporary riff on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, while deliberately echoing the rude absurdity of Terry Gilliam and Monty Python’s Medieval mayhem.

Mia Wasikowska’s frosty reserve is suitably effective for Judy, but Damon Herriman ironically shows far more range and leaves a deeper impression as the destructively volatile, deeply insecure, and pathetically craven Punch. Yet, the real human pathos comes from Terry Norris and Brenda Palmer, who portray the elderly couple framed by Punch with exquisitely tragic dignity.

Maybe J&P would have worked better if doubled-down on violent theatricality and went for the full Sweeney Todd, so to speak. It earns a lot of credit for originality, but it makes its points like a puppet Punch beating a puppet Judy over the head with a stick. Still, it gets measured recommendation for viewers looking for something different, especially if they get the cultural source material. With that in mind, Judy & Punch releases today (6/5) on VOD.