In a town ruled by ignorance and public stonings, a married couple works to bring their locally successful puppet show to the big stage. When the husband’s blinding ambition leads to tragedy, the wife seeks vengeance. Horror, comedy, and satire prove an interesting and entertaining – though not always compelling – mix in Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy & Punch. (RMM: 3.5/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan
“Seaside” is an English Renaissance village located “nowhere near the sea.” The townspeople flock to the puppet theatre as husband and wife “Punch” (Damon Herriman) and “Judy” (Mia Wasikowska) debut their marionette show. Though their act is a local success, Judy and Punch dream of making it to the big stage. While the two work harmoniously together behind the curtains to put on an entertaining show, they disagree on matters of creative direction and home life. Judy doesn’t like that their content is becoming more crass and low-brow. Punch retorts that he is only giving the audience what they want.
An ambitious man ruled by the desire to be popular, Punch is not a very good husband or father. At a public stoning, he happily accepts an offer to throw the first stone. A villager’s gleeful announcement of “happy stoning day!” sets a darkly funny tone. A witch trial that follows further drives the satire home as one woman is hanged for “staring at the moon for a suspiciously very long time.” We are meant to chuckle while feeling simultaneously disturbed because, as we know, witch hangings have historically been executed with even flimsier evidence.
The next day, Punch is tasked with watching the baby for a few hours while Judy runs errands. After getting himself drunk again, he finds that the baby has wandered too close to the fire and snatches her up. Meanwhile, the house dog has stolen a link of sausages from the kitchen. In his dash to retrieve his food, Punch trips up the stairs and loses his grip on the baby, which goes flying out the window before landing with a thud
When Punch admits to Judy that he accidentally killed the baby, her grief quickly turns to anger as she furiously upbraids her husband. A remorseless Punch beats her to the ground repeatedly with the fireplace poker before discarding her bloodied body on the outskirts of town. He practices his tears in the mirror and frames the old maid and her husband for both the death of the baby and Judy. Three children come across her body and take her to the forest where a group of town-declared misfits have set up camp. Here Judy’s wounds are tended to. Enraged, she vows to exact her revenge on the husband who took everything from her.
Director and writer Mirrah Foulkes wastes no time in setting the satirical tone of the film through a musical score both dark and playful; the violins are plucked in such a way as to make your hair stand on end. Judy & Punch certainly enjoys making you feel confused about what you should feel. Am I shocked and terrified by the brutal way in which the baby dies or am I amused by the ridiculous image of an infant being catapulted from a second-story window? Everything’s at once a light joke and a dark, scary reality. We can poke fun at the absurdity and ignorance of such things as witch trials while feeling the dire and terrifying consequences of their happening.
In its ending, Judy & Punch communicates a message we’ve all heard a thousand times – different is good. I welcome this positivity, but I do feel that the film perhaps hits the nail a little too hard on the head. The switch in tone from dark and humorous to preachy is rather jarring and a little unbelievable. Foulkes puts so much into establishing a tone that is almost completely obliterated by the film’s end.
Overall, this is an entertaining film with rich-colored costumes and a darkly funny plot. I only wish it had kept with the tone it so successfully set in the beginning.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (7/26/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Judy and Punch share an embrace.
Top Photo: Judy and Punch pose for a portrait.
Middle Photo: Judy and her horse.
Bottom Photo: Members of the camp of outcasts discuss Judy’s arrival.
Photo Credits: Ben King
Q: Does Judy & Punch pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Women in the camp discuss their lives.