The Punch and Judy puppet shows, once a misogynistic staple of British seaside entertainment, have enthralled — and possibly traumatized — centuries of impressionable children. In them, a barely-changing slapstick (the term derives from Punch’s weapon of choice) tableau of wife-beating, sausage-scarfing and baby-tossing unfolds, usually with inept policemen joining the mayhem.
Twisting the marionettes’ appeal into a bizarre feminist revenge fable, the Australian writer and director Mirrah Foulkes gives us “Judy & Punch,” a parable of toxic masculinity that slots almost too neatly into our #MeToo moment. Scurrying into a filthy public house in a 17th-century English village named Seaside (“Nowhere near the sea,” an on-screen note admits), the camera parks us in the midst of a raucous audience. It’s waiting for Professor Punch (a menacingly jovial Damon Herriman) and his wife, Judy (Mia Wasikowska), popular puppeteers who seem destined for wider fame.
A philandering showman equally addicted to alcohol and applause, Punch longs to be discovered by a big-city talent scout. Judy, the real genius behind the string-pulling, is naïvely hoping that success will sober him up and settle him down.
“The show seems to be getting punchier all the time,” she says, worriedly. Public opinion is changing, and even the revelry of “stoning day” — a self-explanatory spectacle designed to expose witches — is being questioned. And when, unwisely, Judy leaves their baby daughter in Punch’s care for an afternoon, the savagery that follows will force her to claim sanctuary with a band of forest-dwelling outcasts while her husband sweats to cover up more than one hideous crime.
Presenting violence as a contagion and mob mentality as its superspreader, “Judy & Punch” courts equilibrium between domestic-abuse comedy and vicious morality tale. Dancing from brutal to wacky — in scenes that recall the dash and whimsy of ABC’s ditsy series “Galavant” (2015) — and from silly gallows jokes to grotesque seriousness, the movie intertwines humor and tragedy in imaginative, sometimes disturbing ways. Yet despite Mirrah’s inventiveness (in one lovely scene, Judy mimes animal shadows on the wall for her delighted daughter) and Stefan Duscio’s vividly grimy cinematography, one mood tends to wash out the other.
What’s left is a baroque pantomime, a heavy-handed satire of intolerance whose fun fades faster than the livid bruises on Judy’s face.
Judy & Punch