The dark, absurd period fairy tale “Judy & Punch” makes an accurate observation (and a bold statement) about sex and violence in pop culture, and the mob mentality that can rapidly turn fear into savagery. This strange tale of puppetry, spousal abuse, murder, witchcraft, and revenge is based on the traditional 16th century Punch and Judy puppet show. It’s well told with a funny, sad, and modern feminist spin on the tale from writer / director Mirrah Foulkes.
Things are rough in Seaside, where villagers fill their evenings by attending the marionette theater run by Punch (Damon Herriman), the self-proclaimed “greatest puppeteer,” and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska), who holds the real talent in the family. The show is crude and the routine misogynistic without much artistry, as a male puppet beats other puppets, including female ones, with a fist, a stick, or any toy object at hand. As the audience roars their approval, the violence on stage grows meaner and more frequent — and eventually spills into the couple’s real-life home.
Punch, a verbally and physically abusive drunk, dismisses his wife’s flair for the theater and instead screams at her to give the audience what they want: “the punchy and the smashy.” It’s a vicious circle of life imitating art, and vice versa.
The film is well-suited as a modern day criticism on superstition (here, the villages routinely hang and stone citizens suspected of witchcraft), the brutality that can lie dormant in the hearts of many, the callousness that seems to have taken over routine kindness, and the often dangerous power of the court of public opinion. The dark humor is a sophisticated wrapper for a story that, when the layers are peeled back, is sad and disquieting in so many ways. It’s also a fiercely feminist revenge story that’s deliciously provocative, thanks to a fantastic lead performance from Wasikowska (you can always count on her to make interesting choices when it comes to big-screen roles).
There are a few too many long stretches of filler that feel pointless and slow down the story, but overall this narrative of male aggression and female empowerment is a classic, intelligent story that provides a perfectly cynical commentary for current times.