Maybe you thought you never wanted to hear this old story again, but a new version will change your mind.
Maybe you thought you never wanted to hear this old story again, but a new version will change your mind.

MOVIE REVIEW: Fresh twist on disturbing old story

An alcoholic layabout is asked by his wife to look after their baby. When his neglectful parenting results in the child's death, the wife, on her return, is understandably distraught.

So what does he do? He bashes her to death with his stick. And the crowd roars with laughter.

The so-called comical violence of Punch and Judy puppet shows have been appealing to audiences for 350 years despite its highly distasteful nature - you could argue it's satire, but, be honest, you know it's not.

Somehow, this tale of infanticide, marital abuse and gleeful homicide is still in vogue - which is one of the reasons why Judy and Punch, a cracking and clever Australian movie starring Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman, is so fresh and urgent.

As the name reversal in the title suggests, it's not the Punch and Judy you know.

 

Mia Wasikowska in a fresh version of the classic Punch and Judy story
Mia Wasikowska in a fresh version of the classic Punch and Judy story

 

Of course, Punch (Herriman) is still an arsehole - in this version, he's a violent, drunk puppeteer with delusions of success. While Punch gets all the glory from their travelling puppet show, it's clear that Judy is the real talent.

When the gigs dry up, Punch moves Judy (Wasikowska) and their baby back to Seaside, Judy's hometown.

Seaside isn't anywhere near the ocean and it's even further from paradise. The town's denizens are small-minded, prejudicial folk prone to hysteria and fear. They don't like things and people that are different and women who challenge the status quo are immediately branded as witches.

The story follows similar beats to the Punch and Judy puppet show, until that usually fatal blow - this is where the story diverges and takes us down a different path.

Judy isn't killed by Punch, instead she wakes up in the forest where Punch left her body.

As you can imagine, she is pissed.

With Punch concocting elaborate plans to frame his wife and baby's disappearance on the poor housekeepers, Judy is taken in by a community of shunned women.

 

Damon Herriman’s latest villain in a string of villains this year
Damon Herriman’s latest villain in a string of villains this year

 

Judy and Punch would be a revenge story if it was a lesser film uninterested in the dynamics of power and gender. Rather, it's a nuanced and effective exploration of the social structures that oppress certain people - ahem, like women.

By giving the power back to Judy, it's a new twist on a crappy old story - and it has a lot of fun doing, a kind of macabre and defiant fun that's infectious.

Judy and Punch is writer and director Mirrah Foulkes' feature debut, and it's a confident film for a newbie. She has a command of pacing, and composes some beautiful shots. She also elicits compelling performances from Wasikowska and Herriman - the latter is another notch in Herriman's year of hateful villains.

Just when you thought you couldn't possibly stomach another performance of that odious Punch and Judy, allow this Australian movie to surprise you.

Rating: 3.5/5

Judy and Punch is in cinemas now

Share your movies and TV obsessions | @wenleima



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