Judy and Punch severs the patriarchal strings of a troubling seaside tradition

Described in Sight and Sound as “a feminist fairytale”, (which is as much of a description as I need to be sold), Judy and Punch is a powerful allegory for a world in which men have for so long pulled the strings. Director Mirrah Foulkes' translation of puppet show to live action is darkly witty and imaginative, as “Professor Punch” (Herriman) and Judy (Wasikowska) personify their wooden counterparts.

The film cleverly appropriates the Punch and Judy show for the screen, right down to the satirically named town of ‘Seaside’, where the story is set (a 17th century village in which no beach balls are present). It is packed with meta elements, as the characters' lives imitate their art. We see the married couple perform their puppet show, before Judy is cruelly flung aside by her husband, in the same manner as her wooden equivalent. The show’s catchphrase "that's the way to do it!" is also darkly repeated by the human Punch, after brutally beating his actual wife.

Black humour is something I often find uncomfortable, and there is plenty to be found here, such as the Monty Python-esque caricature who merrily announces "happy stoning day!" There is also a disturbingly slapstick depiction of an unimaginably horrific event, where (spoiler alert) Punch accidentally fatally drops their young baby out of a window.

However, it is precisely this off-kilter tone of dark yet comic which is the whole point of Foulkes' film. That something so horrific can be portrayed in such a cartoon-ish way, only exposes the deeply sinister nature of the puppet show, in which domestic abuse and parental negligence are played for laughs. In a world where wooden dolls are replaced by flesh and blood characters, violence is suddenly not so funny.

It is this bizarre amalgamation of comedy and horror that is powerfully reflected in the impressionable young faces at the end of the film. As the credits roll, real footage of a Punch and Judy show darkly reveals the perpetuation of a sinister tradition, as the children cannot decide whether to laugh or cry; a confusion shared by us the film viewers. In doing so, the film is not only a commentary on the show’s inherent misogyny, but a critique on the Punch and Judy audiences themselves. Judy and Punch forces us to question what we deem entertaining, looking beneath the supposedly harmless fun, to reveal something deeply sinister.

Overall, the film’s tonal strings sprawl and dance in unconventional and daring directions, yet they ultimately entangled me with it. I found myself at times both gasping in horror, laughing in disbelief and triumphantly punching the air (pun intended) at its climactic act of female vengeance.

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