Judy And Punch

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Judy And Punch
"There's layer upon layer of clever artifice here, yet the result is something that feels fresh and sexy." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

It's a longstanding staple of British seaside holidays, with roots in the commedia dell'arte of 16th Century Italy and a bizarre set of traditions which have been evolving for so long that little remains by way of logical plot. What has made it so enduringly popular? Is it the earthy humour that delights in breaking taboos, or is the extreme, unrestrained violence?

Set in a timeless, quasi-Medieval town called Seaside, miles from the sea, Mirrah Foulkes' fresh take on the old story follows two travelling entertainers who make a living putting on puppet shows. Perfectly synchronised at work, they clearly also have great chemistry as a couple, but all all is not well between them. Times are hard and Punch (Damon Herriman) deals with it by squandering what little money they have, mostly on drink, whilst Judy (Mia Wasikowska) struggles to manage their practical affairs and take care of their baby. Herriman, a brilliant casting choice, brings oodles of charm to his role, making the audience sympathise and want to believe him when he promises to change his ways, something Judy has clearly fallen for on multiple occasions. One day, however, his drunken carelessness results in a tragedy from which there is no turning back. His subsequent assault on Judy might see the curtain fall, but she's no mere puppet, and as Punch tries to build a life without her, she plots her revenge.

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All of the classic elements from the puppet show are here, from the hapless young police officer who clearly has a crush on our heroine to the crocodile which emerges from the depths of a nearby lake like a spirit guide. A sense of the ancient and occult infuses the tale, which also has something of the quality of a western, outsiders at odds with the corrupt town. Greedy for violence, its people gossip wildly and revel in the hanging of supposed witches. Punch's flair for populist rhetoric enchants them. The show's excess finds new, redolent form, gaining folkloric depth and riven through with humour that is both uncomfortable and undeniably appealing.

In combination with Foulkes' dialogue, Edie Kurzer's rich, colourful costumes give the whole film a theatrical quality, drawing on the spirit of the commedia dell'arte. There's layer upon layer of clever artifice here, yet the result is something that feels fresh and sexy. Effortlessly charismatic, Wasikowska gives Judy a fierce dignity that in no way depletes her human qualities, and woe betide anyone who gets in her way.

It's remarkable that this is Foulkes' first film as director, because it's so unlike anything else made in recent years. There's a completeness about it, a confidence without which it could never have borne up it own weight. Under her steady hand, a tale which many might have considered unfilmable lurches into life, full of swagger and style, somehow managing never to get its strings tangled.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2020
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Puppeteers Judy and Punch are trying to resurrect their marionette show. The show is a hit due to Judy's superior puppeteering but Punch's driving ambition and penchant for whisky lead to a inevitable tragedy that Judy must avenge.
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