Producers: Michele Bennett, Mash Edgerton and Danny Gabai   Director: Mirrah Foulkes   Screenplay: Mirrah Foulkes   Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Tom Budge, Benedict Hardie, Lucy Velik, Gillian Jones, Terry Norris, Brenda Palmer and Daisy Axon   Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Grade:  C+

To outsiders the enduring popularity of Punch and Judy shows might just be one of the more baffling aspects of English culture. The origin of these comically violent puppet sketches—which gave rise to the term slapstick because of the wooden club Punch uses to strike other characters—has been traced back to Italian commedia dell’arte, and specifically the character of the trickster Pulcinella.  Anglicanized as Punchinello and then simply Punch, the hook-nosed fellow became the proverbial abusive drunk—though a farcical one.  It’s somewhat amazing that his mistreatment of people, especially his wife Judy and their baby, should have been thought entertaining, let also suitable for children.    

From this rather unpromising material Australian actress turned writer-director Mirrah Foulkes has fabricated a striking but strangely uninvolving period fable of female empowerment.  Adapted from a story by, among others, Tom and Lucy Punch, “Judy & Punch”—the reversal of names implying the ultimate reversal of dominance—is imaginative, yet cold and distant in emotional effect.

The story is set during the Restoration period of English history, when theatrical performances were once again allowed by King Charles II after being prohibited during the puritanical rule of the Cromwells. (In fact, the first recorded Punch and Judy performance in England is dated to 1662.)  Punch (Damon Herriman) and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska) have brought their marionettes to the town of Seaside (so called despite the fact that it’s nowhere near the sea) to regale the locals. 

Punch, a preening egotist at home introducing the show on stage, considers himself the greatest puppeteer anywhere, but it’s really Judy who’s the talented one.  Punch is also a drunkard, and one day when Judy is away he gets smashed, and in a real-life version of the puppet show’s traditional narrative—including the baby, a dog and some sausages—a tragedy ensues in which he beats his wife so severely that he thinks she’s dead, and disposes of the corpse.

In order to protect himself against arrest by straitlaced Constable Derrick Fairweather (Benedict Hardie), Punch accuses two elderly servants, the befuddled Scaramouche (Terry Norris) and his whiny wife Maid Maud (Brenda Palmer), of doing away with Judy in some sort of devilish pact.  It’s an accusation the fanatical citizenry—who have already executed one woman for sorcery simply because she was seen looking at the moon too long—is more than ready to believe, and the two doddering old scapegoats are scheduled to be hanged.

Punch also tries to continue his career, joining up with a dim-witted woman named Polly (Lucy Velik) to replace Judy.  The result is a disaster, since Polly’s incompetence leads to enlisting real children to replace the marionettes, not at all successfully.

Of course, Judy isn’t dead.  She’s been rescued from the grave by children residing in a camp of outcasts in the forest, who have fled Seaside to save themselves from the people’s frenzy.  And recovered from her beating, she intends to take a terrible revenge on her faithless spouse.

The basic conceit of transforming the well-known Punch and Judy sketch into a modern fable of a capable woman turning the tables on her brutal husband is certainly witty, and Foulkes and her collaborators have in many respects done an ingenious job of it.  The visual side is outstanding, with Josephine Ford’s production design and Edie Kurzer’s costumes, and cinematographer Stefan Duscio has been especially careful to give the images a strange fairy-tale hue. 

The performances are remarkable as well.  Herriman captures the almost maniacal self-centeredness of Punch with histrionic exuberance, and Wasikowska manages to be both gentle and resolute; the rest of the cast fit themselves skillfully into roles that aren’t so much human as comical types. 

And yet there’s a ring of heavy-handed affectation to the entire proceeding.  The mixture of farce and violence—as in the original puppet shows—is more unsettling than grimly amusing, and much of the action has a stiff quality that makes it seem as if it were being played by marionettes (a tone intentional, perhaps, but, italicized by Dany Cooper’s editing, still off-putting).  And the deliberate anachronisms, not only in the dialogue, where modern idioms are sometimes tossed in, but the music, where a song by Leonard Cohen serves as backdrop to a dance routine, don’t come off any better than they did in Brian Helgeland’s “A Knight’s Tale.”  (The original score is by François Tetaz, with musical supervision by Jemma Burns.)   

The closing credits are set against archival footage of an audience of children reacting to a Punch and Judy show.  What laughter there is seems guarded and hesitant, and more often they show signs of being repelled by what they see.  Their unease and queasiness about the original might very well be seconded by viewers of Foulkes’ daring but chilly satire based on it.