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Review: Judy & Punch

Sophia Andrews Gamarra reviews Judy & Punch, a bloody, comic and relentlessly incoherent film inspired by the traditional seaside puppet-show.

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Image Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Director: Mirrah Foulkes
Starring: Mia Wasikowska
Length: 1h 46m
Rating: 15

This film follows Punch and Judy, husband-and-wife puppeteers dreaming of London fame, performing in a backwater town in vaguely post-medieval England. Judy is very much the magician’s assistant to her husband, although she does half the work as well as trying to keep said husband off the frequent boozing and infidelity. Yet after a fatal accident involving their infant daughter, Punch beats Judy and leaves her for dead in a mysterious forest, where she is taken in by a community of outsiders and vows revenge on her husband.

Although it has a ‘ye olde England’ theme, appealing to the general stereotype of ‘medieval-ish countryside filled with guffawing peasants and witch-burning’, it doesn’t even remain consistent with this loose setting. The dialogue is filled with awkward Americanisms (Judy calls the townspeople “hobos”) and the folk music score is merged with synthy riffs. Given that its themes of ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘domestic violence’ are timely because of the #MeToo movement, it seems unnecessary to blatantly evoke a resonance with the modern age through these anachronistic and clumsy elements.

While the film is ambitious in its source material, especially in how it explores a nostalgic childhood amusement through the lens of current sexual politics, it’s riddled with enough incoherence to elicit impatience rather than curiosity. Judy and Punch initially tells us little about the titular characters apart from their dreams of puppeteering success (and Punch’s inability to stay on “the straight and narrow”). But its contextual ambiguity is quickly undone when Judy and Punch’s fall from fame before the film’s beginning (thanks to, you guessed it, Punch’s alcoholism) is explained by the leader of the outsiders in a long, unsubtle exposition-dump that ultimately adds nothing to the story.

The film’s tendency to show, then tell the audience what they had previously shown, appears in its use of children as a recurring motif. In the first scene, an unnamed girl in a black cloak silently watches the performance, giving Judy a piercing gaze, implicitly challenging the social norms portrayed before her. The evocation of the innocent straightforwardness of children as a contrast to the self-delusion of adults is a familiar trope. Yet it is undermined when the child meets Judy and directly asks, “Why does Punch always win?”; the dialogue pointlessly spells out what had already been implied. It’s as if the film is so aware of how pertinent its themes are to modern social concerns that it feels the need to hit the audience over the head with them.

Judy and Punch is a revenge tale with a painfully thin plot. In a nutshell, Judy gets attacked and her daughter dies because of her husband (setting up motive for revenge), then she decides to take revenge, then she does. Although her revenge goes beyond attacking Punch, as she challenges the wider community that validated his behaviour with their brutality towards women, she does not experience much change as a character in the interim between planning revenge and enacting it. There is a subplot of Punch framing their servants for her and her daughter’s murder, but it fails to build tension because it is clear that Judy’s revenge will coincide with the servants’ unjust hanging, and she has little do but sit in the camp and wait for the hanging day to come.

She does briefly return to the town to haunt Punch with a Grim Reaper puppet (a well-worn cliché of ghostly judgement) to provoke him to confess his crimes, but he eventually decides not to because he is narcissistic, heartless and cowardly. This had already been made crystal clear, since his response to his wife’s anguished rage for mistreating their baby was to beat her and dump the body. Damon Herriman, as Punch, effectively portrays a controlling, short-fused man who can turn on the charm when necessary, yet it is all for nothing if the character never develops.

While this is an ambitious debut for Mirrah Foulkes as a director, and I wanted to like Judy and Punch through its chaotic mix of violence and comical absurdity, it could not survive on those factors alone. Its central themes of misogyny and violence are dealt with half-heartedly, as the film ends with Punch’s hanging of the elderly servants thwarted by Judy and the outsiders arriving on the scene. She gives a speech where she chastises the town for their narrow-mindedness, explaining how ostracising anyone ‘different’ has harmed the community as a whole. The closing scene has Punch in a padded cell, implying the outsiders were accepted back into the town, and I left the theatre thinking that for all the film’s preoccupation with the monster of misogynistic violence, it can only be described as anticlimactic for said monster to be defeated by a lecture.

Editor's note: This film was screened at City Screen York.

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