In 2019, Punch and Judy is, shall we say, problematic. If you’re unfamiliar: Punch and Judy is a traditional puppet show, featuring Punch - an angry man with a big stick - and a range of characters who meet violent fates at the end of that stick, including his wife Judy. It’s a cultural institution dating back centuries, embedded into the psyche of Britain and its Commonwealth, its borderline-medieval comic conventions remaining basically intact today.
Australian indie Judy and Punch is at once an adaptation of the Punch and Judy show and a sort of fictional 17th-century history of it. Mia Wasikowska stars as Judy, wife and co-star to Punch (Damon Herriman, who has also played Charles Manson twice), a struggling and alcoholic puppeteer desperate to take their show - Punch and Judy - out of the small town of Seaside and into the “big smoke.” As for Seaside itself, it’s beset by terror about witches - or rather, about the people exiled to the outskirts whose difference led them to be labeled witches. The townsfolk love a good violent puppet show, but they love a good hanging, burning, or stoning even more.
Given the subject material and the town culture, you can see where this is going. Punch’s alcoholism turns negligent, causing the death of their child - and then violent, as he beats Judy to death. Or just about. As he begins framing his elderly servants for the deaths, Judy awakes where her body was left for dead in the woods, taken in by the “witches” banished there. It ultimately becomes a struggle between the forces of good - Judy, the witches, the servants, and one good if ineffective cop - and the forces of evil, represented by Punch, the seemingly independent hangman, and everyone else.
Almost immediately, Judy and Punch strikes an odd and off-putting tone. Like the shows, it blends character comedy and extreme violence, but unlike the shows, that mixture seems designed to make the audience confront their own sense of humour. Much of it is rooted in tradition - Punch says his catchphrase after savagely beating Judy, and their baby dies in grimly hilarious fashion - and all of it strikes discomfort in the audience. The tone is further twisted to strange places in the dialogue, a mixture of purple period parlance and more contemporary jokes including, bafflingly, an entire section of a speech lifted from Gladiator.
Writer-director Mirrah Foulkes marshals and crafts this delicate balance with the wild abandon required to do it. Save for Wasikowska’s only moderately feisty audience-surrogate character, the performances are uniformly broad and delightful, with Herriman absolutely hoeing into the scenery as an increasingly Shakespearean monster. The support cast, too, paint compelling and entertaining pictures of their oddball characters, from the doddering patsy servant to the good-hearted weakling constable to the delightfully down-to-earth witch doctor. They’re supported by rich, earthy cinematography befitting this twisted folktale, and some genuinely surreal sequences that rope in some of the more unusual Punch characters.
Punch and Judy has its roots in the Italian theatre of commedia dell’arte, based around masks, grotesques, and broad physical archetypes, later codified by several individuals including one who went by Punch. The film explores this glancingly, while also following the traditional story and characters of the puppet show. But where commedia is today known only to theatre practitioners and historians, Punch and Judy persists in the general pop-cultural consciousness. Its brand of comedy is arguably at least a subconscious inspiration to any number of contemporary slapstick comedies (Bottom immediately comes to mind), even if the actual marionettes and puppets are relegated to seaside fair attractions and the like. You can see this influence in Judy and Punch; it’s just much more self-aware than the rest.
Judy and Punch, however, makes a pretty convincing case that Punch’s implicit messaging has made as big an impact on broader society as its violent humour has on comedy - and a much more negative one. Just as Judy often bears the brunt of Punch’s rage in the shows, women in the film suffer the anger of the world of men - whether as domestic violence victims or as witches. Anyone in the film who doesn’t conform to their preassigned social roles, or their female or male gender roles, is ostracised or beaten. It’s a dystopian past that reflects upon a dystopian present.
This is the Judy and Punch’s primary focus, and it’s also sadly the source of a weakness that damn near sinks the movie. After a movie in which every aspect of the Punch and Judy mythos is poked and prodded in interesting ways, it reaches a climax only to grind to a halt for a literal speech explaining everything we’ve just seen. It’s not quite an On Deadly Ground level of didacticism, but it’s close, and ultimately it’s redundant in a movie that makes its point better elsewhere. If anything, its ending feels like a reshoot done after test screenings went poorly, and indeed, Judy herself is something of a passenger character right up until that final moment. I appreciate the desire not to make a typical revenge movie, but the climax gets all its puppet strings tangled.
Then again, maybe we need to have the point sledgehammered home. Judy and Punch’s two final beats are as brilliant as its climax is clumsy, firmly establishing the concept that Punch and Judy - and its unpleasant subtext - is a generational cycle. Art imitates life imitates art, and eventually it all becomes a picture as grotesque as a commedia mask. Judy and Punch is certainly the most interesting exploration of this element of British cultural history I’ve seen. With a little more narrative finesse, it’d be a definitive one.