What better place to satirise the treatment of women in the entertainment industry than via the appalling spectacle of domestic violence that is a Punch & Judy show? All the elements of this seaside staple – brutal Mr Punch, his wife Judy, the baby, the policeman, Toby the dog and a crocodile – appear in ‘Judy & Punch’, Australian writer-director Mirrah Foulkes’s feature debut. It offers a kind of origin story for the ‘punchy-smashy’ handpuppets and repositions them within a live-action feminist revenge tale.
The scene is the landlocked European town of Seaside in the mid-seventeenth century. When the crowds aren’t gathering to watch the stoning of a suspected witch, they’re at the marionette show staged by ‘Professor’ Punch (Damon Herriman, suitably loathsome) and his more talented wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska). Punch is a local hero, high on fame and booze. When he commits two unforgivable acts, Judy finds herself allied to the town’s outcasts and fighting back against Seaside’s powerbrokers.
Perched somewhere between ‘The Crucible’ and a fairytale, ‘Judy & Punch’ adds a winning dose of Monty Python absurdism to the mix. An on-point score, meanwhile, has just enough of a contemporary edge to locate the issues it raises in the here and now, as does the end-credits footage of children watching an old-school Punch & Judy show and clearly being traumatised by it. Foulkes has deftly deconstructed the ways powerful white men pull the strings and her movie’s a timely pair of scissors.