Imagine a world where people took the law into their own hands and the ideals were archaic, ostracizing and accusing people based on superstitions and hearsay.
No, I’m not describing our world today, but I am describing the new film “Judy & Punch” starring Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman. I’m sure all of you older than 40 will remember the children’s puppet show from the 1950s called “Punch & Judy” where the bizarre puppets beat each other up. The puppet show and concept originated in 16th century Italy and now is flipped on its head, thanks to the unrestrained imagination of first-time writer and director Mirrah Foulkes.
The story is set in the town of Seaside, “nowhere near the sea,” in 17th century England, and begins with a casual suggestion of a stoning and who will throw the first one. After recovering from the fact that yes, they actually are talking about stoning someone and it being a privilege to cast the first one, you understand this darkly Monty Python-esque film promises to take you to some very humorous yet unexpectedly dramatic places, and it does not disappoint.
Judy (Wasikowska) and Professor Punch (Herriman) are trying to resurrect an entertainment career with their magical puppet show that wildly entertains the raucous and unruly crowds. If it wasn’t for the fact Punch has a few “issues” that have sabotaged their stardom, this puppeteering duo would have been all the rage.
For those of you familiar with the original series, Foulkes maintains the “simplistic set of stock characters” as she referred to them. She also keeps a through line of using a baby, a dog and sausages. While this sounds bizarre, and it is, these elements set the tone for what becomes a story of a woman scorned.
“Judy & Punch,” as the word order would suggest, follows Judy, giving us a back story or perhaps an origin story, seeing the world through her eyes. She and many of the townspeople are wronged by her lying, cheating, manipulative husband portrayed expertly by Herriman, and Judy is set to right those wrongs but not before all hell breaks loose in the town, thanks to Punch’s cowardice.
While these descriptions of the film sound quite menacing, and they are, there is plenty of humor interwoven throughout the film. Foulkes, as she told me in an interview, likes to “mess with an audience” by using slapstick sequences followed by violence, which forces the audience to confront its attraction to violence.
These shifts in tone are like a roller coaster ride as you find yourself aghast at what happens to the baby but laughing just moments later. You feel as if you’ve been a part of a magic trick, unsure as to how this magician just made you cringe and gasp aloud and then laugh just as audibly.
This incredibly imaginative script plays out in an equally unique set which transports you to an era you’ve only read about. With bawdy pubs darkly lit, stone-walled homes and churches, dirt pathways and costuming to suggest the period, Wasikowska’s brilliance as an actor shines through. She immediately is likable, and we see her struggle with her husband, but not long into the film, we find her tolerance for Punch’s behavior no longer can be tolerated, as Punch’s true colors are blinding. Wasikowska finds the right levels of each emotion as she plummets from sweet mother to an empowered vengeful woman who has suffered more atrocities than any woman should.
Herriman, no stranger to playing the bad guy, hones his skills in this role. While he portrays a character who is truly unlikeable, Herriman finds a way to allow other aspects of Punch’s personality to come to the surface as a nervous, narcissistic and controlling man who ultimately is nothing more than a coward. Together, although Wasikowska and he aren’t on screen at the same time for a significant part of the film, these actors find the spark in the story and light it on fire.
The entire cast supports the narrative, bringing an almost theatrical feel to the film. Terry Norris and Brenda Palmer are absolute delights, adding just the right touches of comedy in just the right ways, and the young Daisy Axon creates subtle tones of humor balancing some of the horrors we behold. Within the deft acting skills and direction of this film, there are also plenty of special effects that will make your heart race or perhaps elicit a gasp. Either way, it’s a credit to the impressive yet never over-the-top special effects crew.
“Judy & Punch” is a fairy tale of a film with a succinct and riveting script and paired with great performances resulting in total entertainment during the entire film, laughing even amidst the darkness.
You can stream “Judy & Punch” on all major digital platforms.
Reel Talk rating: 4 Stars