JUDY & PUNCH movie poster | ©2020 Samuel Goldwyn Films

JUDY & PUNCH movie poster | ©2020 Samuel Goldwyn Films

Rating: Not Rated
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Benedict Hardy. Gillian Jones, Terry Norris, Brenda Palmer
Writer: Mirrah Foulkes
Director: Mirrah Foulkes
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Release Date (select theaters, Hulu, VOD): June 5, 2020

JUDY & PUNCH is a movie that makes viewers feel like we’ve stumbled into an odd, secret realm, perhaps the historical edge of the Twilight Zone. Not full-blown fantasy or horror or comedy, but with elements of all three, it’s a beguiling display of folklore cinema.

Director/writer Mirrah Foulkes gives us a spooky, once-upon-a-time opening to a tale set in the 16th-century landlocked town of Seaside. We may or may not be in the British Isles (there’s a reference made to Wales) or in Australia (we see a crocodile, and JUDY & PUNCH was made there, though in reality Europeans hadn’t arrived in great numbers yet).

The townsfolk are terrified of witches, stoning and hanging people, mostly women, for the slightest perceived infraction. The new town constable (Benedict Hardy) is a more enlightened type, but he also doesn’t exactly know how to stand up to mob violence.

Married puppeteers Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and Punch (Damon Herriman), along with their infant daughter, have returned to Seaside, where they have a sprawling estate, despite being in poor financial straits (we find out the particulars as the film unfurls). Punch is counting upon a week-long engagement of their Punch & Judy marionette show – he puppeteers Punch, she puppeteers Judy and pretty much everyone else – as a relaunch of their touring career.

Seaside residents love the show, even though, as Judy wonders, “Does it have to be so punchy and bashy?” The traditional Punch & Judy show, lest we forget, makes a laughing matter of wife-beating, and Punch’s vignettes are the same. Punch drinks too much, a habit Judy tries to curb. Then there’s a terrible accident, followed by an appalling act of deliberate violence.

And then, just when it seems that JUDY & PUNCH may develop into a comedy so dark that it plunges past humor, it instead takes a turn toward warm-hearted fable. We have a good idea in general of where we’re going, but we haven’t a clue how the film is going to get us there.

Foulkes provides theatrical flair to JUDY & PUNCH. It is partly about live performance, and the beats feel a little like those of a stage play, even though the imagery is wonderfully cinematic.

JUDY & PUNCH is sumptuous to look at: indoor crowd scenes look like paintings by Brueghel. Stefan Duscio is responsible for the lovely cinematography and Josephine Todd did the endlessly inventive production design.

The film is also cast extremely well. Wasikowska brings intelligence, resilience and reflection to Judy, as well as a timeless quality that serves the work. Herriman, who has a physical resemblance to Errol Flynn here, perfectly embodies a matinee idol gone wrong, who’s ready to sacrifice anything and anyone for his ego.

There are a few moments where we can wish JUDY & PUNCH would be a little sharper in its tale-telling. Also, while no animals are killed on screen, there is a lot of bloody rabbit skinning that may be repellent to some viewers.

Mainly, though, JUDY & PUNCH is an appealingly original work that makes us feel like we’re gathering around the fire to hear an engrossing yarn.

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