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Simon Read [Celluloid 05.15.20] Australia comedy crime

Judy & Punch, the feature debut from writer/director Mirrah Foulkes is a playful, darkly comic historical fiction depicting the origins of Punch & Judy shows - grotesque puppet theatre derived from Italian commedia dell'arte and traditionally performed by hand puppets in British seaside towns. Here however, Foulkes re-imagines these origins as the work of a husband and wife team who perform their show with marionettes in the 17th Century rural English town of 'Seaside' - shows which reflect their own deeply dysfunctional relationship. The film is at turns comedic and quirky, occasionally bleak, but works on its own terms as kind of socially conscious morality fairy tail about prejudice, betrayal and revenge.

Mr. Punch (Damon Herriman) is a faded puppeteer. Once a great draw for theatre crowds, he has become reduced to a boozy lush, performing for pennies to raucous, drunken crowds in his home town of Seaside. His long-suffering wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska) largely carries the show herself, while also looking after their baby daughter and maintaining the household along with two elderly servants. When Punch's heavy drinking leads to a domestic tragedy, he takes his anger out on Judy. Viciously beating her with his cudgel, he leaves her for dead in the nearby Black Forest. This is just the start of his troubles.

Seaside is depicted as a backwards hamlet in which even the slightest indiscretion is punished by stoning, hanging or public burning. A young police constable attempts to maintain order, but is strongarmed at every turn by the paranoid and superstitious townsfolk. Judy survives her ordeal, and is taken in by a group of heretics who camp in the forest. Having been ostracized by the local townsfolk for their intelligence and individuality, this odd little community of proto-feminist hippies are a bastion of sanity and common sense in an otherwise upside down world. Judy recovers, and swears revenge.

For those in the know there is a lot of fun to be had in spotting references to classic Punch and Judy shows here. The couple own a little dog called Toby who wears a ruff collar; Mr. Punch is obsessed with eating sausages; and we have appearances in the film from ghosts, devils, the aforementioned policeman, and at one point even a crocodile. It feels as though the very shows they perform bleed into the film's twisted reality.

Foulkes is largely unconcerned with historical accuracy, utilizing synth covers of classical music during the shows themselves, and writing characters who often speak anachronistic, contemporary English. Some actors lapse into their native Australian accents from time to time. None of this matters though, the film's setting feels almost like a nowhere world in which anything goes. One moment towards the end even seems to feature real magic. Worth noting are the beautiful costumes and set designs which really make the setting come alive and help to absorb us into the world of Judy & Punch.

Buoyed along by its own crazy energy, the film is best appreciated very much on its own terms. Many times I wished Foulkes had included more depth to her two leading characters, more nuance to their motivations. Punch is a bad man, a selfish brute revealed as a misogynist, a coward and a charlatan, while Judy is nothing less than an angel, charming local children with her slight-of-hand magic tricks and burning the torch for reform and enlightenment in the town. The only criticism I really have is that the world Foulkes creates here is so black and white, everything seems convenient and uncomplicated - we know what will happen, we just wait to see how it will happen, and that is the entire basis of the narrative.

What works best is the delicate balancing act of maintaining a comedic tone while depicting some frankly horrific events. An early scene depicting the stoning of three clearly innocent women convicted as witches ("She was looking at the moon for a suspiciously long time!") strikes the right tone, one reminiscent of a similar scene in The Life of Brian. Like Punch and Judy shows themselves, the film aims to shock the audience while generating a response of hysterical laughter - and it works. That's the way to do it.

With strong performances from both Herriman and Wasikowska (continuing to choose interesting roles) Judy & Punch marks Foukes out as a filmmaker to watch. It is a wonderfully atmospheric and beautifully designed little film that may not be perfect, but stands tall as a solid piece of well-crafted, eccentric entertainment.

Judy & Punch will be available on VOD June 5.

Recommended Release: The Life of Brian

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