If your memory needs refreshing, Punch and Judy are traditional puppets who have been entertaining crowds in the UK and beyond for over 400 years. They started out as marionettes in Italy; Punch was derived from the Neapolitan stock character of Pulcinella, which was anglicized to Punchinello and eventually just Punch when the show made the jump over to Great Britain, and the marionettes became hand puppets out of convenience or laziness or both.The show costarred Mr. Punch’s wife, Judy, and a cast of rotating characters. Much like a soap opera, the story wasn’t fixed, but it always featured some key elements: their baby, mishandled by Punch, a hungry crocodile, an officious policeman, a prop string of sausages, a generic hangman named Jack Ketch. The show was a series of scenes in which various foes come for Punch, but each is eventually victim to his slapstick (note: though Mr. Punch does an awful lot of clowning around, his slapstick is indeed a large stick used for slapping people, often to death). Mr. Punch will then utter his famous catchphrase “That’s the way to do it!” which is how the expression “pleased as punch” was derived – from his sense of gleeful self-satisfaction. Despite the numerous murders, a Punch and Judy show is a comedy, often provoking shocked laughter.
Cut to 2020 when writer-director Mirrah Foulkes re-imagines the show’s origin story in her own sordid tale, called Judy & Punch. In the tiny 17th century English village of Seaside (actually nowhere near the sea), Punch and Judy entertain the villagers with their weekly puppet show. The violent show is right at home among these people, who satisfy their bloodlust with public “stoning days” where their anarchic mob rule interprets random coincidences as witchcraft, condemning their neighbours to die – unless of course the crime is though to be particularly heinous, wherein they might just be hanged immediately.
At home, Punch (Damon Herriman) is a drunk and Judy (Mia Wasikowska) his hard-working and long-suffering wife. One day while she makes a quick trip to market, Punch accidentally kill their baby during a drinking binge. Judy has been gone but an hour and is understandably heart broken to find her baby murdered but her sobs only enrage Punch, who then makes her a victim of his slapstick. He disposes of both bodies.
Allow me to interrupt myself here to say this: when the baby dies, it is under circumstances so perfectly orchestrated, so perfectly designed and directed that I uttered a single “Ha!,” followed by a horrified silence as I processed that the baby is in fact dead. If you were not familiar with the particular and very specific brand of dark humour found in a traditional Punch and Judy show, you might think that this movie has a serious problem with tone. But understanding the history means you cannot fail to admire Foulkes’ ability to find what has to be the very slimmest of veins wherein a baby’s death can be both funny and cruel, and executing it to perfection.
In the film, Judy narrowly survives the beating, unbeknownst to Punch, and hides among a band of outcast heretics while she heals. Together they plot revenge not just on Punch but indeed on the whole town who have so successfully driven out or eliminated anyone with a difference. In this way, Foulkes is able to explore the kind of atmosphere where such a show could have proliferated. Punch is undoubtedly a bad man. Each show usually includes a scene wherein Punch lays out the bodies of each and every one of his victims for the audience to count, yet they still cheer when he bests the hangman, or indeed even the devil himself. These were cruel times fueled by fear: if not them, then us.
Mia Wasikowska delivers a strong performance as a woman with talent, brains, and resources, yet so few options that she must hide in the forest for fear that her survival may be interpreted as witchcraft. Herriman pulls off an even harder feat as damned Mr. Punch: a fool, a predator, a charmer, a pretender. The thing about puppets is that whether dancing with their wives or bludgeoning them, their expressions never change. Perhaps a painted-on grin helped the audience swallow his violent attacks. But our Mr. Punch is a man, a puppeteer. Herriman has to be believable as both the bumbling buffoon chasing after a dog who’s stolen his sausages, and mere moments later, a father who has not only charbroiled his own baby, but pinned her murder on elderly innocents. And he is!
I am reminded of a time back in 2016 when I reviewed a “black comedy” that I felt was SO black it merited a whole new category, so I invented the Vantablack comedy, Vantablack being in fact a colour that is blacker than black, absorbing all but 0.035% of light; a black so black our human minds can’t actually perceive it. I would like to unroll this categorization once again, in honour of Judy & Punch, Mirrah Foulkes’ audacious directorial debut.
Judy & Punch is available digitally on Apple/iTunes as well as VOD services.