Judy & Punch is a live-action Punch and Judy show with all the extreme violence, rampant misogyny, and medieval superstition that makes a Punch and Judy show what it is. Judy & Punch is also very aware of all those things and troubled by the popular appeal of them, and especially by the fact that Punch and Judy is performed most often now for children.
It wasn’t always this way. Punch and Judy began in the 17th century as a marionette show for adults. It morphed over the next two hundred years into a puppet show for children. Judy & Punch fictionalizes this transformation by bringing Punch and Judy and their typical colorful cast of other characters to life in an odd little British town. Punch and Judy perform a marionette show for the townspeople in a pub and hope of “making it big” one day and moving up in the world. Things happen to them that happen in a Punch and Judy show. I keep being non-specific about that, because I think there’s a good chance you don’t know what typically happens in one of those shows, and the less you know, the more shocked and entertained you’ll be by what happens in this movie. I don’t want to spoil anything, though it feels strange to avoid spoiling a story that’s been told since the 1600s.
Punch and Judy is one of those stories you really ought to know. It’s like Romeo and Juliet or the stories in the Bible. It has become the base material of all our narratives. Judy & Punch plays with the foundational nature of the puppet show by playing fast and loose with the time period details here. This movie could exist in the same universe as A Knight’s Tale. I love that movie, but I think Judy & Punch is even smarter about how it uses anachronisms. The film shows us how the distressing facets of the Punch and Judy show (which is pretty much all of them) have become baked into what we expect from stories and allow in real life. For example, the movie directly quotes Gladiator and superhero movies but with a hollandaise of irony poured over the top. Judy & Punch doesn’t exactly subvert the myth of redemptive violence in the end, but it does unmask it and offer a holistic alternative.
And it’s also just a terrific film. The acting is top notch. Subtle when that’s what’s needed and over-the-moon big when that’s better as well. Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herrimon in the titular roles really sell this. Writer/director Mirrah Foulkes shuffles tone like a master magician shuffling a deck of cards. The movie is never not exactly what it needs to be in any moment, even as it switches from the broadest comedy to real tragedy in a breath. And the score is fantastic - quirky and moody, with a real propulsive drive when the film needs it. I really hope this film finds an audience. It’s special.