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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
With her feature debut, actor-turned-director Mirrah Foulkes gives us a brilliantly bizarre #MeToo fairy-tale, a revisionist backstory for the Punch and Judy puppet show set in the 17th century. It’s a mouth-puckeringly tart movie that’s tonally in a world of its own – darkly disturbing, absurd, brutal and silly, with a bat squeak of bonkers. And it’s not consigned to the dim and distant past, either. Foulkes persistently jolts us back to the 21st century with a modern turn of phrase in the script – “we killed it tonight!” – or synth-y bit on the soundtrack, insisting we see her thesis on mob mentality and male aggression as horribly relevant.
The film is set in the town of Seaside, a mix-mash of Shakespeare and Dickens inhabited by grubby urchins, ruffians and potato sellers, with a bawdy public house where Punch and Judy perform their knockabout puppet show. Mr Punch (superbly played with sweaty charm and barely concealed menace by Damon Herriman) is the greatest puppeteer of his generation. Or, so he likes to think. Actually, it’s his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska, reliably excellent) who is the real-deal talent. Forget the nagging shrew of tradition, Judy is super-capable, managing the business, looking after the baby and trying to keep her husband off the booze.
But inevitably Punch falls off the wagon, leading to a spot of the old wife-beating and negligent parenting which has given joy to Punch and Judy audiences for centuries: in no other film are you likely to see the death of small child played as oopsie-daisy slapstick, a comic-tragedy set off by a dog wearing an Elizabethan ruff. (Those with a sensitive disposition should avoid.)
Afterwards, Judy is sheltered by a community of outcasts in the forest, and here the film turns into a satisfying revenge tale, with gentler notes of kindness and solidarity to balance the sharpness. What a killer debut this is; that’s the way to do it.