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Judy & Punch
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by Jay Seaver

"Not content with puppet slapstick."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Punch & Judy shows weren't a big thing in the United States when I was a kid, and I'm not sure how much longer they remain something that people in the British Isles or Australia still grow up with. They've disappeared, in part, because enough people eventually became uncomfortable with the violence behind their broad knockabout humor, and perhaps they've been shuffled far enough back in our cultural memory that "Judy & Punch" can manage to pull people in with the promise of entertaining puppetry and wry humor before making them think about domestic violence.

Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) was once a famous touring puppeteer - a popular form of entertainment in the 1600s - with whom Judy (Mia Wasikowska) fell in love, eventually marrying and having a child. They now live in the town of Seaside (which is nowhere near the sea), operating a theater of their own. Punch's name is on it, of course, even though Judy is now the more talented marionette builder and operator, and she must often cover for his drunkenness. One day, Punch does far worse than his usual dalliances with the barmaid at McDrinky's, and when Judy confronts him in horror, he responds with violence, leaving her for dead. Fortunately, she's found by Scotty (Daisy Axon), a little girl who would sneak into town from a camp of outcasts to see the show, and nursed back to health. She wants justice, but is that even possible for one as wronged as her?

It's an unfortunate state of affairs that one can't honestly add "in that time and place" to the last sentence, and the familiarity of Judy's story is what gives the film such genuine depths of despair. Writer/director Mirrah Foulkes uses the period setting to make Punch's crimes and the community's complicity all the more horrific, but making the language contemporary enough that the audience can't quite dissociate. Audiences will look at the worst of what Punch does and how the mob enables him and hopefully find themselves leaning toward wondering if society is better enough today rather than just dismissing the question out of hand. There's even purpose to the things which seem designed to be anachronistic, like the more progressive attitudes of newly-appointed Constable Derrick (Benedict Hale) - Foulkes is able to make a joke out of how out-of-place they seem but also make the audience maybe think a little about how often people live up to them today.

Foulkes never lets the film drift too far from the ugly realities of Judy's situation; even as she becomes more sure of herself and committed to seeing some justice done, there are always limits on what she'll be able to fix - but it also doesn't just wallow in misery. Many of the jokes may be cynical or based on pointing out how times past that are often romanticized were messy and crude, but they're also funny enough to make the violence and darker material that emerges a bit of a shock. There is less room for whimsy in the film's middle, but Foulkes makes sure to hold out a little room for hope in how Judy remains intelligent and creative, and there is a supportive (if wary) community to be found.

Mia Wasikowska is tasked with handling the heaviest of the material as Judy, and you'll never go far wrong casting her in this sort of role; she's able to project the sort of intelligence and sense where Judy understands the world around her but still feels shocked and hurt when it lets her down. The film is able to establish all the ways to connect to Judy (kindness, ingenuity, perspective) quickly in no small part thanks to Wasikowska, and she's also able to keep the audience's attention as Judy rebuilds, even if there's more bustling activity back in town. That's where the audience gets to watch Damon Herriman plumb Punch's uglier depths. Herriman's good at catching the way an abuser's cruelty is often built out of indifference, making Punch feel small and petty even when things are going his way.

The film is grim enough in its material and perspective to make me wonder if "Judy & Punch" will be able to attract an audience in either the case where Punch & Judy are active traditions or mostly-forgotten curiosities. For as smartly-done as it is, much of its sense of escape drains away fairly early, and for as much as I liked what Foulkes accomplished here, I do wonder how many people will wind up tapping out at the sheer frustration of it all, whether despite or because of how true-to-life that frustration may be.

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originally posted: 12/26/19 05:58:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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