REVIEW: Judy & Punch [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 105 minutes
    Release Date: November 21st, 2019 (Australia)
    Studio: Madman Entertainment / Samuel Goldwyn Films
    Director(s): Mirrah Foulkes
    Writer(s): Mirrah Foulkes

That’s the way to do it.

They say your first violent act is the hardest. After that, however, repeating it often proves easier with each subsequent attempt. That initial struggle lies in knowing your actions are wrong. But if you do something unforgivable and never experience any consequences, those bad deeds start to normalize. You become comfortable with what you did and inevitably fall prey to a steady escalation of violence that spills out into the public. Domestic abuse leads to bar fights. Bar fights lead to run-ins with the cops. And eventually you’ve found you’ve injured every single person around you. All that’s left is you. Maybe that battle manifests as beast or devil, but everyone obviously knows the foe is merely a stand-in for the soul you’ve lost. It’s a tragic demise.

Well, it should be tragic. Shouldn’t it? We should empathize with this person’s fall and abhor his/her continued descent because he/she is a cautionary tale. We don’t want to fall victim to blind aggression. We don’t want to suffer that fate. And yet we glorify violence instead. We slap an R-rating on brief nudity, but let children revel in the bloodied wars of superheroes masquerading as cops. We’re told they use good violence to protect us from bad violence, but that’s a very blurry line in a racially charged environment like the United States. Just look out in the streets right now and watch as these so-called “heroes” attack innocents in order to protect … what? Property? Nope. They’re protecting an out of control lust for power.

That’s what happens when violence becomes entertainment. We pick a side and cheer. And who ultimately becomes the villain? Minorities. It could be as terrorists, gang members (not gangsters as they’re generally white and glorified), or housewives. The latter is especially true in work ingrained with misogynistic DNA from yesteryear where women are depicted as hysterical, naggers, or destroyers of patriarchal norms that equate to that aforementioned out of control lust for power. And the best way to ensure it permeates our very way of life is through comedy. Minimize it with laughter. It worked with Archie Bunker in “The Honeymooners” and it worked in the 1800s with traveling “Punch and Judy” puppet shows. Slapstick is one thing. Watching Punch pummel everyone that disagrees with him is another.

How this formula hasn’t been specifically turned on its head yet is beyond me, but writer/director Mirrah Foulkes has presently taken up the charge with her debut feature Judy & Punch. While its plot concerns two puppeteers (Mia Wasikowska‘s Judy and Damon Herriman‘s Punch) who originate the “Punch and Judy” show, its construction is itself also a “Punch and Judy” show. All the earmarks are there from Punch mishandling his responsibility to care for his baby, his ill-temper leading to a brutal attack upon his wife Judy, and a local constable (Benedict Hardie‘s Derrick) that no one respects enough to not assert their unearned authority over his. Throw in a crocodile and a devil via nightmare (real and faked) and this familiar stage for consequence-free violence is set.

The problem for Punch is that we’re no longer laughing. Foulkes pulls no punches when transferring abuse from performance to reality. There’s no notion of slapstick when Punch raises his cane to beat Judy to a bloody pulp. It’s so abrupt in fact (the culmination of a wild sequence of events that sees Punch running through the house to keep the baby out of the fireplace, retrieve his breakfast sausages from the dog, and get day drunk) that the jarring shift in tone should make it so you can hear a pin drop in your theater. Being that humanity has numbed itself to such acts, however, it’s not long before Punch flips the script and uses the townsfolk’s blood lust to insulate himself from harm by accusing another.

And what better direction to point than towards another woman? Foulkes therefore injects a second form of persecution from traditionally patriarchal societies: witchcraft. It’s the perfect addition due to the ease at which we label those who are different than us as heretics by working ourselves into the same lather as those we fear (Tom Budge‘s Mr. Frankly loves a good stoning/hanging/burning) in order to align ourselves with the cause as a means of security. After all, the person on your left can’t kill you if you’re busy killing someone else together. Mob mentality rules the day to dismiss compassionate souls as the enemy (Brenda Palmer and Terry Norris‘ poor old Maude and Scaramouche) or simply in the way (Constable Derrick) until no more scapegoats remain.

It’s a never-ending series of wild events that spiral downward until you aren’t sure whether to laugh or gasp. Don’t be afraid to do both, though, since there’s as much intentional farcical comedy present as there is poignant social commentary. Judy & Punch succeeds in large part because of how it mixes both together to increase the potency of their respective impact. Foulkes’ ability to keep her two leads three-dimensionally drawn despite the surrounding caricatures helps too since their pain hurts more if we understand its breadth. How far Punch falls holds greater meaning if we witness his guilt and realize his intentional rejection of it. How strong Judy becomes means more if her situation possesses the necessary context for retribution to instill change on top of satisfaction.

[1] Damon Herriman & Mia Wasikowska Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
[2] Mia Wasikowska Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
[3] Damon Herriman Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

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