Review: ‘Judy & Punch,’ starring Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman

June 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Damon Herriman and Mia Wasikowska in “Judy & Punch” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Judy & Punch”

Directed by Mirrah Foulkes

Culture Representation: Taking place in a 17th century-inspired other world, the drama “Judy & Punch” has a predominantly white cast (with some black people and Asian people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A husband and wife who make their living as puppeteers experience turmoil in their relationship because of alcoholism, abuse and an overly suspicious community that’s quick to accuse people of witchcraft.

Culture Audience: “Judy & Punch” will appeal primarily to people who like dark re-imaginations of children’s entertainment, although the content might be too violent and disturbing for some viewers.

Mia Wasikowska in “Judy & Punch” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

The Punch & Judy puppet shows might conjure up images of making children happy with what seems to be a light-hearted form of entertainment. The “Judy & Punch” movie destroys that innocent illusion to make a brutal commentary on the violent and misogynistic origins of Punch & Judy shows. Australian actress/filmmaker Mirrah Foulkes makes a compelling debut as a feature film writer/director with “Judy & Punch,” which is part fantasy, part revenge thriller, part feminist manifesto.

The trailers for “Judy & Punch” reveal a lot of this movie’s plot (except for the ending, of course); therefore, nothing in this review is a “spoiler.” “Judy & Punch” is set in a town called Seaside, a fantasy world that looks like it could be in the 17th century, but there are modern elements to this world, such as some of the hairstyles of the extras and the use of contemporary slang, such as “We killed it,” to describe how someone did a great job at something.

In the beginning of the story, married couple Judy (played by Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (played by Damon Herriman) seem to have a harmonious relationship as partners in a traveling marionette puppet show. Judy and Punch have taken up residency at Seaside, a community filled with dirty and disheveled working-class people who are extremely superstitious and fearful of witches. Everyone has some type of British accent, except for Punch, whose accent is Irish.

Seaside also has a lust for violence, since one of the town’s favorite activities is stoning or hanging people who’ve been accused of practicing witchcraft. Judy and Punch’s puppet show is a hit in the town, mainly because the show consists of an “alpha male” puppet assaulting an assorted array of other puppets until the alpha male kills the other puppet. The object of the alpha male’s attack could be a female, a skeleton or a devil.

Judy and Punch don’t attract huge crowds in Seaside (the theater where they perform only holds about 100 to 150 people), but they make enough money to live fairly comfortably. Judy and Punch also have an elderly live-in housekeeper named Maid Maude (played by Brenda Palmer) whose husband Scaramouche (played by Terry Norris) also resides in the home and is showing signs of dementia. Maude and Scaramouche have a dog named Toby, which has a habit of stealing food from Punch’s dining plate.

It’s clear from the beginning of the story that Judy is the more talented partner in this duo (she’s the one who designs the puppets used in their shows), but she’s subservient to the flamboyant Punch because she’s confined by social rules to be a dutiful wife. The first sign that Punch is disrespectful to Judy is when they come out from behind the curtain at the end of the show to bask in the crowd’s applause. Punch twirls Judy around, but then he lets her loose with such force, he doesn’t seem to notice that she almost falls down.

In public, Punch seems to be fun-loving and charismatic. But it’s mostly an act. In private, he’s a mean and violent alcoholic who can be very abusive to Judy and others. Punch and Judy have an infant girl, who is probably one of the main reasons why Judy has decided to stay with Punch. But Judy is so afraid of how Punch can be when he’s drunk that she’s reluctant to leave the baby alone with him for an extended period of time.

But one day, Judy has some business to do outside the home, so she leaves the baby with Punch and warns him not to drink alcohol while he’s babysitting. Toby the dog takes some food from Punch’s plate, so an infuriated Punch chases the dog to the room where Scaramouche is staying. As a peace offering, Scaramouche offers Punch some liquor, and Punch predictably gets drunk.

What happens next is a heartbreaking tragedy (and yes, it involves the baby), so when Judy gets home and finds out, she lashes out at Punch in anger. Punch then viciously beats Judy with a fire poker until she appears to be dead. Punch buries Judy in a shallow grave in the woods, where she is discovered barely alive by a group of misfits who live in a community that they call a heretics camp.

Judy is brought back to camp and nursed back to health. The unofficial leader of this ragtag group is Dr. Goodtime (played by Gillian Jones), who initially advises Judy not to get revenge on Punch. But Judy has other plans. This huge chunk of the storyline is revealed in the movie’s trailers, so the only real spoiler information is if or how Judy confronts Punch, who believes she is dead. Punch is so loathsome that he has blamed Maid Maude and Scaramouche for the disappearance of Judy and the baby.

“Judy & Punch” also has some supporting characters that round out some of the story. There’s the Seaside constable Derrick (played by Benedict Hardie), a nervous, nerdy type who tries to be fair and objective in this witch-hunt community, but he’s often swayed by forceful personalities such as Punch and the town bully Mr. Frankly (played by Tom Budge). Mr. Frankly is the type of sadist who loves stoning people so much that he’s jubilant when he announces, “Happy Stoning Day!” on a designated day for this brutal public punishment.

Another townsperson who’s a supporting character is Polly (played by Lucy Velik), a single mother of fraternal twin sons, who has a crush on Punch and doesn’t try to hide it, even before Judy “disappears.” After Judy’s disappearance, it doesn’t take long for Polly and Punch to start sleeping together. But when Punch makes Polly his new partner in the puppet show, she sees his abusive side when he becomes impatient with her inexperience.

One of the greatest strengths of “Judy & Punch” is the world-building accomplished by the movie. The world of Seaside looks ancient but feels modern, and the themes in the film can still resonate with today’s movie audiences. There are also some amusing quirks in some scenes, such as during Punch and Polly’s first puppet show together, two jaded-looking “hipster” critics with notepads are seen in the audience looking stone-faced. It’s an obvious satire of how several modern critics look and act in real life.

The cinematography by Stefan Duscio is striking, as many interior scenes are bathed in a red glow that can look either inviting or menacing. It’s a perfect metaphor for the duality of Punch, who is beloved by the townspeople but who has a hateful side to him that he hides very well.

Aside from the obvious female empowerment message in the story, “Judy & Punch” has very pointed social commentary about the dangers of mistreating others just because they’re “different” from the majority. Although the movie is obviously fictional, the lessons in the story are relevant to many societies in the real world.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Judy & Punch” in the U.S. on digital and VOD on June 5, 2020. The movie was originally released in Australia, the United Kingdom and other countries in 2019.