Updated: Oct 14, 2019
Directed by: #MirrahFoulkes
Film Review by: #BrianPenn
If you grew up in England, a day at the seaside was an essential part of any child's social development; donkey rides, the funfair and of course Punch & Judy; those irritating but strangely compelling puppets who smashed the living daylights out of each other. Ever wondered where they came from? Before you reach for Google you might try this new film by Mirrah Foulkes. It takes the principle of what if and offers a new spin on one of history's greatest double acts.
Our story takes us to the town of Seaside (obviously not by the seaside) in the midst of a puritan kick; where witch burning and stoning of heretics is reality TV for the locals. Punch (Damon Herriman) is the womanising, heavy drinking puppeteer; while Judy (Mia Wasikowska) is devoted wife and gifted performer. The couple are desperate for a talent scout to see their show but seem destined for mediocrity. Bumbling constable Derrick (Benedict Hardie) tries to keep order but is constantly outwitted by zealous Mr Frankly (Tom Budge). Punch is left to care for baby with inevitable consequences. As a result, Judy is badly beaten by Punch and ends up in the heretics’ camp. She is nursed back to health by Dr Goodtime (Gillian Jones) and plots revenge against Punch.
The film cleverly pulls at the threads of a story that most people know well; Punch drunk and constantly mislaying baby; a pesky dog who keeps running away with the sausages; and a bumbling policeman waving a truncheon around. But it now has a dark and sinister edge that keeps the audience on their toes. It can also be very funny as it takes crafty pot shots at Hollywood blockbusters; so creating a melting pot of ideas that keep the plot gently boiling away.
Framing the story is marginally easier with a largely blank canvas; the true origins of Punch & Judy are buried deep in centuries of folklore and received tradition. So it can be re-shaped and re-written at will, much like a pantomime. The cast play it serious only when absolutely necessary; the male and female leads naturally stand out, although Mia Wasikowska bears a striking almost uncomfortable resemblance to Gwyneth Paltrow.
It is a beautifully assembled piece, full of vibrant images that never fail to hold the attention. At the risk of sounding flippant, it remains the earliest portrayal of domestic abuse, and is telling that Judy gets top billing over Punch for a change. The closing titles play out over a charming black and white film of children watching a traditional Punch & Judy show. It just proves what can be done with old fashioned slapstick intended to amuse the kids?