Judy & Punch Review

Back when I was in primary school, one of the frequent destinations of annual class trips was the Lambert Puppet Theatre in South Dublin.

It was a fascinating experience each time, though personally I’ve always found something a little creepy about puppets.

Dating back to the seventeenth century, Punch & Judy shows tap into this creepiness and surely remain one of the most unsettling forms of children’s entertainment today.

In Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy & Punch, we get a feature-length adaptation of the show and associated folklore, and the unsettling feeling pervades throughout.

The film’s opening shot tracks a child in a hooded cloak, making its way under nighttime cover through the outskirts of a town, seemingly from centuries past.

A title card informs us that we are in a town called Seaside but, quickly rooting the film’s quirky tone, we learn that the town is not actually located anywhere near the sea.

We follow the child to a building in the town centre, where there is great commotion and excitement.

Amid the crowd, a woman is gathering financial contributions in consideration for the spectacle about to unfold. Her name is Judy and the forthcoming entertainment is Professor Punch’s puppet show.

And so begins our journey into the quirky, comic and at times darkly twisted, world of the film.

We learn that Judy and Professor Punch (Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman) are talented puppeteers, the former perhaps more so, and that Punch’s big dream is to escape Seaside and play the bigger cities.

Punch is seen to be fond of frequenting pubs and eating sausages and is not opposed to the occasional stoning of a few of the town’s accused wrongdoers.

Judy is encouraging of her husband’s ambitions but is long-suffering as a wife and unsupported as a mother, and is disgusted by the town’s brutal treatment of the wrongdoers, who in this case are suspected as witches.

Judy and Punch are assisted, if that’s the right word, by a pair of old servants who live with them. Rounding off the cast of characters is a young police constable (a brilliantly awkward Benedict Hardie) who is fond of Judy.

One fateful day, Judy leaves Punch to mind the baby for a few hours and all does not go to plan.

Punch & Judy contains familiar elements, such as the sausages and babysitting, and some you may not remember, such as Scaramouche and Toby the dog. A crocodile even makes an appearance at one point.

Dodgy Irish accent aside, Wasikowska is captivating as a Judy who is as strong as she is vulnerable, and is matched in performance by Herriman, whose Punch is devious but too pathetic to truly loathe. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, with each and every actor giving it their all, particularly Tom Budge’s weaselly Mr Frankly.

The film had an air of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam about it, in its impressive design and reliance on practical effects, and how it picks an outlandish tone and sticks with it, managing to weave the dark humour and raw drama throughout.

Foulke’s conviction in her offbeat vision may alienate some, but I absolutely loved it and am very intrigued to see what she does next.

Conor Brennan

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November 2019
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