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edge staff writer


Master of puppets – ‘Judy & Punch’

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There’s nothing quite like that moment of realization – usually within the first few minutes of a movie – that you had no idea what you were in for. Most of the time, I sit down with a fairly clear idea of what to expect from a film. It’s rare for a movie to surprise me.

“Judy & Punch” surprised me.

The film – written and directed by first-timer Mirrah Foulkes – is inspired by the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show, a subversive slapstick satire with roots in the tradition of commedia dell’arte. The stylized brutality and savage humor of the duo proved very popular in Restoration Era England – the same time and place that serves as the setting for this film.

That inspiration lays the foundation for a genre-fluid and deeply weird cinematic experience, one driven by that same ethos of savagery. This is a movie that gleefully pinballs from comic absurdity to stark social commentary to graphic brutality, all in the space of mere minutes. This is a film that is unafraid to shock and almost gleeful in its willingness to undermine expectations. It is dark and unsettling and bizarre, shot through with an anarchic sense of humor that borders on Pythonesque.

All in all, I dug it, but be warned – your mileage DEFINITELY may vary.

The 17th century English town of Seaside (a town nowhere near the shore, to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with here) is a place of paranoid puritanism. It is here that Judy (Mia Wasikowska, “Blackbird”) is trying – alongside her husband and partner Punch (Damon Herriman, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”) – to return their puppet show to the grand stages of the big city. Hers is the talent that truly carries the day; Punch is more interested in the trappings of fame and getting drunk, though he’s insistent that he is too good for Seaside.

But when his drunkenness leads to a tragedy involving their infant child, he refuses to be held accountable, instead unleashing his rage upon his wife. Thinking her dead, Punch drags her out into the woods and buries her. He then returns to town and falsely accuses Judy’s ancient family servants of the crimes, rendering them as even more vividly gruesome than the ones he committed. Despite the good faith efforts of the earnestly ineffective constable Mr. Frankly (Tom Budge, TV’s “Bloom”), the aged servants are sentenced to death.

Judy survived, however, thanks to some young people who find her in the woods and bring her back to their ramshackle settlement – a home for the many heretics that have been exiled by the crazed mob rule of Seaside. She discovers a kinship with her new friends, but even as her wounds heal, her desire for vengeance grows. All that remains to be seen is if she will exact that revenge – and how.

“Judy & Punch” is a whirling mass of tonal contradictions, slipping from gruesome violence to pitch-black comedy to period drama as it moves from moment to moment. These transitions are not seamless – quite the opposite, in fact. The jarring shifts are intentional, a smart shorthand method of impressing upon us the deliberate showcasing of the fundamental ugliness at work. That feeling of whiplash? That’s a feature, not a bug – Foulkes knows exactly what she’s doing.

Let’s talk about that, actually. While I’ll concede that “Judy & Punch” is not going to work for everybody, it’s hard to deny the utter audaciousness on display here. This kind of film experience would be a wild addition to just about any filmmaker’s oeuvre, but we’re talking about a first effort. It takes a special kind of courage to take a swing this big on your maiden voyage. It doesn’t always work – finding balance with this many disparate tones is clearly a daunting task – but a movie like this is about the effort.

Again – there’s a LOT going on here. When one of your best moments of physical comedy arrives via infant defenestration, you’re obviously not aiming for four-quadrant appeal. There are some genuinely unnerving moments of violence, both physical and emotional. It is challenging and off-putting in many regards.

Mia Wasikowska is magnetic as Judy, even as she’s put through the proverbial wringer by the narrative. There’s a soulfulness to her, an almost childlike quality that makes her pain and subsequent anger all the more impactful. Herriman is equally great as Punch, embodying the idea of evil’s banality; his drunken selfishness and self-loathing is projected outward in a way that is horrifying in a commonplace kind of way. The supporting players all do their parts – highlights include Budge’s well-meaning ineffectiveness and pretty much the entire collection of exiled heretics, but really, just about everyone contributes in a meaningful way.

Still, it’s about the titular duo. The film rises and falls on the two of them, both as a unit and as individuals. The breakdown of their relationship and the chaos of their diverging paths serve as the fundamental underpinnings of this movie, for (mostly) better and (sometimes) worse.

“Judy & Punch” was an undeniable surprise. It is rawer and stranger than I ever could have imagined. It is ostentatiously and unapologetically confrontational, pushing stylistic and tonal buttons with a feverish abandon. It turns horror into jokes and jokes into horror, all while refusing to commit to genre specificity. All told, it was a pleasure to see these strings being pulled.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 04 June 2020 13:51


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