If “Being John Malkovich” taught us anything, it’s that marriage and puppets just don’t mix. Even behind closed doors and dropped curtains, some men always need to feel like they’re pulling the strings. Of course, that lesson predated Spike Jonze by a few hundred years, tracing all the way back to the “Punch and Judy” shows that sprung out of the comedia dell’arte tradition in 16th century Italy before moving north and being perpetuated as a Victorian pastime.
How fitting that the most famous story puppets have ever been used to tell — a story that’s basically synonymous with the artform used to tell it — is about a controlling husband who neglects his wife, abuses their baby, and then administers a hilarious slapstick beatdown upon everyone who tries to put him to rights (up to and including the devil himself). The vibe at modern Punch and Judy shows may be more Buster Keaton than Ike Turner, but it doesn’t change the fact that these kid-friendly carnival attractions have a long history of treating domestic violence as a Punch-line.
The fun of Mirrah Foulkes’ Python-esque “Judy and Punch” is that her film doesn’t “cancel” the history behind it, or righteously try to rewrite the misogynistic story that its characters have been used to pass along for so many generations. On the contrary — and as its title suggests — this dark and bawdy divertissement just changes the emphasis of its telling. For all of its low-key revisionism and post-modern flourish (most explicit during a kung-fu style training montage set to Leonard Cohen and a funny “Gladiator” reference that lands at a pivotal moment), Foulkes’ confident and kooky feature debut is less interested in subverting its source material than in continuing the puppet show’s long tradition of keeping with the times.
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This clever approach doesn’t always leave the movie with enough meat on its bones, but respecting the weird power these homicidal marionettes have always wielded allows “Judy and Punch” to steer that power in a new direction.
But it’s decidedly not for kids. The fact that it stars the great Mia Wasikowska should make that clear enough (and before you say “but what about ‘Alice in Wonderland?’ let’s not forget those movies aren’t for anyone). The “Stoker” actress has a rare knack for teething through fairy tale worlds in a way that gives them sharp emotional stakes — for being Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf at the same time — and she’s so natural as the put-upon Judy that it can feel like she’s playing the most basic version of an archetype she’s already mastered elsewhere. Still, “Judy and Punch” wouldn’t be as effective without her, nor so comfortably able to balance itself between Shakespearean bawdiness and medieval fantasy.
Set in the rural English hamlet of Seaside (which we’re told is “no-where near the sea”), Foulkes’ well-furnished movie starts by telling you how to watch it, as Wasikowska steps onto a tent stage and tames a rowdy crowd by instructing them to “Sit down, don’t fuck around, and enjoy.” The bloodthirsty audience seems more poised for a gladiator duel than a puppet show, but they sure get a kick out of the violent marionettes that Judy and her husband Punch (Damon Herriman) manipulate for their pleasure; no one in the screaming horde seems to recognize that the puppeteers are effectively performing the story of their own shitty marriage, and it wouldn’t make a fig of difference if they did.
Judy and Punch are a two-person act — a sly riff on the fact that Punch and Judy shows are usually performed solo — but he can’t even begin to conceive of sharing the glory. Punch is determined to be “the greatest puppeteer of our time,” and he thinks of his wife as more of a steward for his talents than a creative partner. “I can’t question my gift,” he replies when Judy points out that the show seems to be getting “punchier” all the time, “I can only surrender to it.”
Herriman was so memorable in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” that you almost can’t help but see a little Charlie Manson in the feral male fragility of his performance here; he owns the first half of this movie, and does a sneaky good job of toying with our sympathies before he dropkicks them out the window of his house (along with he and Judy’s baby). And since he lives in a strange alien world where men are permitted to murder women with such impunity that Seaside hosts “stoning days” just to move things along, Punch decides that it would be easier to just kill Judy than explain what he did to their child. But Judy is not as dead as she seems.
“Judy and Punch” has a tendency to grow slack as it veers away from the puppet story, wilting in the moments when Judy is meant to be finding her strength; that’s particularly true of the scenes in which she argues her revenge with Dr. Feelgood (Gillian Jones), the caravan leader who nurses Judy back to health but insists that it’s better to flee the patriarchy than to fight it. But if Foulkes struggles to hold focus on a story that’s too thin to support all of the shiny ornaments she wants to hang on it, her command over the film’s irreverent tone keeps things compelling throughout.
From start to finish, “Judy and Punch” feeds on the comic violence that has always informed this material, and finds any number of amusing ways to weaponize it against the irredeemable puppetmaster who’s due to become the butt of his own joke. Foulkes’ brutal sense of humor allows for the kind of movie in which just about anything can happen — the kind of movie where Furiosa-esque insurrection and Mel Brooks-adjacent gags can live side by side.
François Tétaz’s electric ren faire score is dark enough to solidify the danger, but plucky enough to grant us the permission we need to laugh at anything too gruesome, and probably would have allowed Foulkes to push things to even further extremes if she felt compelled. But she goes far enough: The tale of Judy and Punch dovetails with (and then gleefully rejects) the puppet story on which it’s based with such frenzied zeal that we don’t even feel our initial horror curdle into bloodlust. If we can’t stop the violence of our stories from bleeding over into real life, Foulkes’ debut at least finds a singular way to punch back.
Samuel Goldwyn Films will release “Judy and Punch” on VOD on Friday, June 5.