July 30, 2020  (Web Review)

Judy & Punch

Samuel Goldwyn Films, 106 min., unrated, DVD: $19.95, Jul. 7

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Australian actress-turned-writer/director Mirrah Foulkes doesn’t quite reach Tim Burton levels of dizzy giddiness with her darkly comedic period piece, but the fractured-fairy-tale vibe may strike viewers as similar. The plot confabulates an origin story over the notorious, ritually homicidal Punch & Judy puppet shows that have been a standard part of Commonwealth-nation childhood and culture since the 1700s, yet, surprisingly, are rarely mined for horror-movie material. The setting is an archetypal pre-industrial English town called Seaside—not noticeably near any sea—provincial and hopelessly second-rate, where generally filthy inhabitants (racially integrated, however) are ruled by alcohol and Judeo-Christian superstition. Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and her husband Punch (Damon Herriman) enjoy local-celebrity status thanks to their excellent marionette skills, though Punch yearns for larger engagements and discovery by “talent scouts” he believes are everywhere (in this milieu, even witch-burnings and stonings take on the guise of mass-media entertainment). Consequently, he infuses the puppet shows with crowd-pleasing violence. Art imitates life when the irresponsible, drunken Punch fatally drops their baby out a window. When confronted by Judy, he brutally bludgeons his wife and leaves her for dead. Punch blames their elderly servants, a harmless couple he accuses of being in league with the devil. The movie works better when it sticks to being a revenge yarn with a strong side of a social commentary than when it becomes social commentary pasted over a faux-folk revenge yarn, but there are some bits that function well, plus anachronistic infusions of the music of Leonard Cohen and Laibach (plus dialogue quotes from Gladiator). Some viewers may find the domestic violence deeply disturbing, but as Foulkes points out, millions of children have been exposed to Punch & Judy antics and the lethal catchphrase “That’s the way you do it!”. Which leaves you to wonder, what legacy has that left behind? Recommended. (C. Cassady)