Judy & Punch (2019)

Judy & Punch first published by Sight & Sound, Dec 2019

Review: Traditionally performed (since 1825) by a solo artist with hand puppets, Punch and Judy is a show that sets a series of stock characters (the baby, the constable, the crocodile, Toby the Dog, the Devil, Mr Scaramouche, the ghost, etc.) into violent, literally slap-stick confrontation with Mr Punch, who clubs to death all comers (including his wife Judy) for knockabout laughs. The very title of Australian writer/director Mirrah Foulkes’ feature debut Judy & Punch suggests a reorienting of the show’s usual focus, with Judy coming to the fore. Punch may still be a manipulative killer, but here his wife gets a rejoinder to his punch-drunk ways. The film is not only the tale of Judy’s revenge upon her husband and reform of her hometown, but also an attempt to reconstitute all the anarchic depravities of Punch and Judy into something with a salutary moral of sorts.

The emphatically land-locked community of Seaside – presumably so-named in extradiegetic allusion to the piers where Punch & Judy shows have traditionally been staged in England – is a Hogarthian locus of smalltown values and prejudices, where drinking, whoring and mob rule mix toxically with judgmental puritanism, and anyone deemed other is publicly stoned as a witch or forever cast out. Here alcoholic Punch (Damon Herriman) gets top – indeed only – billing on the marionette show for which his kindly, more talented wife Judy (Mia Wasikowski) does most of the heavy lifting. Judy complains that the show is becoming too ‘punchy’ and ‘smashy’, but those very qualities are key to its popularity with the townsfolk, reflecting and informing who they are – as well as who Punch is, as he makes himself right at home amid Seaside’s vices, unable to resist the temptation of becoming ever more like his thuggish on-stage character, and manipulating everyone around him like puppets into scapegoating others for his crimes.

Staging and restaging the notorious puppet show and tracing its influence on its jeering, baying spectators, Judy & Punch offers a hard-hitting dialectic about the relationship between art and audience, man and woman, vice and virtue, as Punch’s staged mean-spiritedness leaks out into his household and neighbourhood, and Judy repeatedly struggles to find a non-violent resolution to what is after all her story too. From this theatricalised thesis and antithesis, Foulkes draws an uncomfortable synthesis in which a sort of harmonious order is restored, but nonetheless the show must go on – and on it goes, in a one-man, hand-puppet form which suggests that the film’s narrative is as much origin story for as deconstruction of Punch and Judy‘s madcap conventions.

Sensationally stylised and larger than life, Judy & Punch is set in a make-believe carnivalesque wonderland, and in a timeless era where witch hunts and public hangings sit alongside anachronistic tai chi exercises (with Leonard Cohen’s Who By Fire on the soundtrack). This fairytale past merges allegorically with the present day, even as patriarchal and matriarchal principles endlessly continue to shake sticks at each other.

Synopsis: The non-coastal town of Seaside, in an unspecified era. Returned under a cloud from the ‘Big Smoke’, Punch and his wife Judy put on regular, popular marionette shows in which the puppet ‘Punch’ grows ever more violent. Meanwhile, Punch cannot resist returning to his drinking, whoring ways. Left to watch their baby girl, inebriated Punch trips over in his pursuit of sausage-stealing dog Toby, sending the baby out the window to her death. When Judy returns, the unrepentant Punch beats her, apparently to death, burying her body in a shallow grave in the woods. He kills Toby too. Punch summons the new Constable Derrick, and uses planted evidence to accuse the good housemaid Maude and her senile husband Scaramouche of the murders. Punch’s fearmongering friend Mr Frankly stirs up the public to call for Maude and Scaramouche’s hanging without trial. 

Some children find Judy still alive, and take her back to the (mostly female) outcasts’ forest camp, where Dr Goodtime nurses her back to health. Punch enlists his prostitute lover Polly and her two children to help replace Judy in the show, but the performance ends in a public brawl. Wanting vengeance but eschewing violence, Judy (disguised as a ghost) warns Punch to confess his crimes. At the public hanging, Punch does not confess, but Judy and the outcasts intervene, revealing Punch’s crimes and saving Maude and Scaramouche. Judy cuts Punch’s hands off. 

Punch still performs his show, with puppets on his hand stumps, through his asylum cell’s window.

Anton Bitel