Judy & Punch is a well-made, well-acted movie that completely rubbed me the wrong way. Writer/director Mirrah Foulkes finds her inspiration in those “Punch and Judy” puppet shows that used to entertain/terrify children with their slapstick violence. Punch, you will recall, often inflicted pain upon others, usually with a giant stick. A feminist plot twist is neat, putting a new perspective on something many of us are familiar with. Some people will really like this film, but boy, was it ever not for me.
Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman play Judy and Punch, two marionette experts who put on shows in a small town called Seaside. Judy is the one who really engages the audience; Punch just calls the shots and takes all the credit. Their offstage life resembles the performances. He's drunken and abusive, she keeps on taking it. For a while, at least. In a rage, Punch beats her to a pulp and leaves her for dead in the woods. She plots revenge after being found by a group of outcasts.
The idea of a human representation of “Judy” turning the tables on “Punch” is really clever. Something about the puppets was always rather disturbing. The movie envisions its characters as flip-flopping with their fictional counterparts, so that the aggressor becomes the vulnerable one, and the vulnerable one takes charge. Wasikowska is terrific showing how Judy finds her strength, while Herriman is equally good as the egomaniacal louse. Not only do we want to see him get what's coming to him, we really want to see her be the one to give it.
My problem with Judy & Punch is that it presents some very heavy subjects – including spousal abuse and alcoholism – in a whimsical manner. This is a picture where even a baby falling out a window to its death is played for a broad laugh. Admittedly, the movie is adopting the over-the-top form of a Punch and Judy puppet show. Such an approach only works onscreen if A.) the dark humor is extremely funny; and B.) it's all clearly leading to a point that's thematically deep.
Judy & Punch hits neither of those marks. It's mildly humorous without ever becoming truly hilarious, and there's nothing deep being said. All the story has is the cool feminist reversal in which Judy tips the balance of power against a bad man. Foulkes doesn't say anything particularly substantive on the issue of domestic abuse. Consequently, the fashion in which the movie depicts certain topics feels unearned, bordering on offensive.
At least, it did to me. Your mileage may vary, depending on your willingness to accept Judy & Punch's tone.
out of four
Judy & Punch is unrated, but contains adult language and some graphic violence, including domestic assault. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.