By Andrea Thompson
The way I first became aware of the grisly history of Punch and Judy was through the novel “Gone Girl,” which used the misogynistic history of the puppet show to inform a philandering husband just what his brilliant, calculating wife had in store for him. In a time when old properties being revived is practically a compulsion, this chapter in our past is being revisited as a way to subvert the patriarchal norms that would see women suffer male violence on a mere comedic whim.
“Judy & Punch” uses much the same methods as a part of a new wave of female filmmakers who explore the past in an effort to take back a narrative so often dominated by men who often view women as objects to be disposed of accordingly. Sometimes it’s less than successful, per the 2018 dud Ophelia, but “Judy & Punch” manages to at least make a case for upending tradition by centering not only women, but how their efforts for a better life can likewise prove uplifting to the system itself.
If that uplift feels a bit too utopian by the end, the journey there is at least worth watching, especially for a feature debut. Director Mirrah Foulkes, who also wrote, has worked steadily and impressively as an actress over the past 15 years, but “Judy & Punch” proves she has real prowess, and hopefully a future, on the other side of the camera as well.
A running joke is that the 17th century town of Seaside is nowhere near the sea, but it is drowning nonetheless, bleakly reveling in superstition and catering to the mob instinct for bloodlust. So sharp has this instinct become that Seaside has become a place which celebrates Stoning Day, complete with festivities such as boxing and stoning women for offenses as wide-ranging as looking at the moon for too long, getting a rash, or all their chickens dying at once. A similarly violent puppet show, run by a husband and wife team who share names and much else with the puppets they manipulate for the town’s amusement, would only be welcome.
It’s quickly clear just how much that show depends on Judy’s (Mia Wasikowska) impressive puppetry skills, but her husband Punch (Damon Herriman) is the one who receives all praise and credit for their work. Hardly surprising, then, that their life would imitate their art, with their ambitions on hold due to Punch’s drinking habits and temper, which is preventing them from achieving the career heights they’re clearly capable of.
Punch may twirl his mustache, but he’s not a one-dimensional villain. It’s not his intentions that are his undoing, but his inadequacies, as he inadvertently causes a tragedy that culminates in Judy being beaten and left for dead, then bent on revenge. The great irony in “Judy & Punch” is just how much that revenge rings hollow, due in part to how little interest the film takes in Judy’s healing process, which is baffling considering it occurs after she ends up in a community of outcasts who find freedom and safety in the woods that the Seaside residents fear and avoid. But there’s little focus on Judy’s interactions with them, or the various rules and histories of the place and the people.
Rather, the latter half of “Judy & Punch” unfolds like something of a crime drama, focusing its energies on the fallout from Punch’s bloody actions, and his efforts to rebound from them. When his comeuppance finally does come, it’s with relative ease, with the violent atmosphere that has haunted most of the film almost supernaturally transforming into an egalitarian paradise. If Wasikowska’s and Herriman’s performance elevate the material, Foulkes likewise incorporates modern touches that incorporate the present into a past that feels like something more sinister than a safe distance away. Her hopes feel too high, but at least there’s at least a sinister edge that keeps it enjoyably in the realm of fairy tale, complete with a retribution that is poetically, diabolically Machiavellian.