Punch and Judy shows have always felt like one of the more unusual aspects of British culture, and one which has lasted far longer than it has any right to.
Granted, plenty of cultures have their bizarre traditions, but of all of the UK’s cultural exports, the Punch and Judy show and its comic depiction of domestic abuse feels the least worthy to have enjoyed such a long legacy.
Enter writer-director Mirrah Foulkes, whose feature debut Judy And Punch sets out to redress the balance of Mr Punch’s shenanigans, and to reinterpret the slapstick violence in a way which is far more disturbing, by putting aside the puppets and presenting everything with a live-action cast.
Judy And Punch takes place in a little town called Seaside; a town nowhere near the sea, but mired in superstition and bigotry.
Foulkes literally sets the stage for the film by having the eponymous couple, played by Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman respectively, ply their trade as puppeteers for the townsfolk, whose blood-lust is sated by Mr Punch’s violent sideshow.
Punch is an alcoholic, lecherous wretch, whose success as an entertainer is only possible thanks to Judy’s talent as a puppeteer and her commitment to the show.
It becomes clear from the adoration of his public though, that Punch is the perceived king of the stage. Like his marionette counterpart, Punch always ends the day the victor.
The film loosely follows the original puppet show’s structure, up to the critical moment where Judy leaves Punch in charge of their baby for the day.
It’s at this moment, as the story’s first act wraps up, when Foulkes starts to turn the story on its head, and towards a much darker path.
One would be forgiven for thinking that Foulkes was a veteran feature director, given her assured nature behind the camera. The town and inhabitants of Seaside could have been lost in the film’s mixture of witch trial superstition, Python-esque whimsy and modern social commentary on domestic abuse and misogyny, but Foulkes manages to find a clear through line through the above to create a film which never loses its edge, nor its central message.
It helps that Judy And Punch is buoyed by two remarkable performances by Wasikowska and Herriman. The two performances complement and collide together in a way which elevates the film beyond the knockabout slapstick of the puppet show, and combined with Foulkes’ direction, brings Mr Punch’s transgressions to life in a way that is deeply disturbing and intensely realistic without ever feeling gratuitous.
Wasikowska absolutely owns this film; her interpretation of Judy as a victim of both Punch’s malevolence and the population of Seaside’s glee at destroying women independent of men breaks through the lightness of the source material to deliver an important criticism on the portrayal of violence against women in stories and entertainment.
Judy And Punch isn’t a perfect film, however. Some of the anachronistic elements – the Tai Chi/Leonard Cohen sequence, for instance – are a little jarring to the overall tone of the film.
And the score, whilst well composed, threatens to invoke Wendy Carlos’ score for A Clockwork Orange at one point; an invocation not made lightly and the effect again is more distracting than anything.
The film feels like it starts to lose confidence as well partway through the second act, and its dialogue gets noticeably expository before
tightening up again for the finale. There were times when characters were explaining what was going on, five seconds after showing the thing happening.
These are minor grievances though, and Judy And Punch is, overall, a very impressive first feature from Foulkes.
It’s the kind of film that will no doubt find a loyal following to elevate it to cult status in time, though the film isn’t so transgressive that it would turn off a more mainstream audience.
To quote the man himself, if anyone was going to make a modern version of Punch and Judy, that’s the way to do it.
Judy And Punch will hit UK cinemas 22nd November.
For all things pop culture and the latest news, follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok.