Opening virtually this weekend...
Judy and Punch--The Australian writer and director Mirrah Foulkes had the inspired idea to do a Punch and Judy show with real people. But the reversed order of the names isn't accidental. Foulkes not only flips the title; she flips the script.
Mia Wasikowska (Tim Burton's Alice) is Judy, stuck in a provincial town in an indistinct Renaissance-ish past, married to the great but down on his luck puppeteer Mr. Punch, played by Damon Herriman. He's a drunken, short-fused brute, and while she tries to be supportive she's long since become the real behind-the-scenes talent in their performances. Eventually we get a grim, gory equivalent to most of the traditional show's classic episodes: The Baby, Toby and the sausages, Pretty Polly, The Constable, The Crocodile, the gibbet, even, in a sense, the Ghost and the Devil. But this time Judy doesn't settle for being a mere victim.
These puppet shows, which when well-performed can be entertaining in their grotesque energy, are part of a long tradition in Western entertainment making light of tyrannical domestic violence. You can trace a line from Punch beating Judy to Ralph Kramden threatening to send Alice to the moon; Ralph never followed through, of course, but his sense that he was entitled to do it was understood. Foulkes makes the inversion of this dynamic exhilarating, and her actors are terrific, especially Herriman's intelligent, self-pitying, reflexively self-justifying Punch.
Those especially sensitive to depictions of violence toward the helpless should be forewarned: there are real horrors and outrages here. There are also moments of Ren Faire-ish corniness, and toward the end there's a big didactic speech that lands with a thud, even if, like me, you agree with every word of its sentiments. But even with these sour notes, the movie is rousing and generous in spirit, and its point is taken: The joke behind the Punch and Judy tradition is no joke.