Judy and Punch
The entertainment industry is facing a reckoning when it comes to the way it treats women, so what better place to start righting wrongs than with the appalling spectacle of domestic violence that is the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show? The staple of English seaside towns for hundreds of years – based upon Italian commedia dell’arte – Punch and Judy shows depict the brutal Mr Punch applying his truncheon liberally to his wife Judy, as well as to a baby, a policeman, Toby the dog, a crocodile, and sometimes Death himself. All of these characters appear in Judy and Punch, writer-director Mirrah Foulkes’s feature debut, which offers a kind of origin story for the “punchy-smashy” handpuppets and repositions them within a live-action feminist revenge tale.
The scene is a mythical, landlocked European town called ‘Seaside’ in the mid 17th century. When the crowds aren’t gathering to watch the stoning of women on the suspicion of witchcraft, they’re attending the marionette show staged by ‘Professor’ Punch (a loathsome and self-loathing Damon Herriman) and his more talented wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska). Punch is a local hero, high on fame and booze; when his weaknesses lead him to commit two unforgivable acts, Judy finds herself allied to the town’s outcasts and on a mission to protect the innocent from the town’s mob-exploiting powerbrokers in the shape of the oily mayor Mr Frankly (Tom Budge).
Perched somewhere between The Crucible and a fairy tale – with a good dose of Monty Python and Pasolini thrown in – this darkly funny #MeToo fable convincingly evokes a European setting despite being shot in rural Victoria with an all-Australian cast. An on-point music score, meanwhile, has just enough of a contemporary edge to locate the issues it raises in the here and now, as does the end-credits footage of children watching an old-school Punch and Judy show and clearly traumatised by it. Foulkes has deftly deconstructed the ways powerful white men pull the strings – her movie’s a timely pair of scissors.