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Judy & Punch - Still 3
Credit: Ben King/Sundance Institute

Jerry and Tom, Clyde and Bonnie, Garfunkel and Simon: Would they be the same, by any other name?

The title of Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy and Punch (on VOD June 5) is maybe the first cue that she’s looking to tell another kind of story in her filmmaking debut — if not flip the script entirely on some half a millennium of marriage, misogyny, and old-timey puppetry.

She doesn’t entirely succeed, though there’s no shortage of style and ideas in her broadly revisionist history: a bizarro fairy tale that drastically reimagines the Punch and Judy myth as a sort of manic, improbable hybrid of Kill Bill, Monty Python, and The Princess Bride.

Somewhere in the vaguely medieval mists of time, there is a village called Seaside (“nowhere by the sea”) and a local couple famous for their play-acting marionettes. Punch (Damon Herriman) is the ringmaster, a rouged, prancing showman; Judy (Mia Wasikowska) the calming force, and possibly the true talent behind the boards.

They have a baby girl together and what looks like a lovely home, but Punch can’t seem to stay away from boozing long enough for their act to get them back to the big city where the real money is. The basics of childcare, too, elude him, and when one blacked-out afternoon takes a terrible turn, Judy is left with almost nothing — except the burning need to avenge the wrongs that have been done.

Foulkes, who also wrote the script (and is married, coincidentally, to one of Australia's best-known auteurs, Animal Kingdom creator David Michôd) trades mostly in the broad strokes of satire, with a distinctly feminist edge. Seaside is a place where women accused of taking inadequate care of their own chickens or staring too long at the moon are casually stoned to death for the townsfolks’ entertainment, and even the constable (Benedict Hardie) is less a lawman than a sort of hapless bystander.

As a director, she's not above a few meta winks at the modern world — the baritone croon of Leonard Cohen over a combat-training montage, the all-female crew of forest-dwelling warrior-"witches" who take in a broken Judy — to help drag certain dusty elements of the puppets' iconography (crocodiles, sausages, infanticide) toward a fresher kind of currency.

The why of telling that story now is never entirely clear. But as the movie's tone teeters awkwardly between farce and tragedy, tenderness and bloody vengeance, it's the performances that root it; supporting players like Terry Norris as a sweetly dotty manservant and Lucy Honigman as Punch's loopy drinking partner and aspiring mistress. And Herriman too, whose leering, snake-eyed Charles Manson in last year's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood somehow becomes something even more menacing here.

Mostly, though, the work is carried by Wasikowska, an actress who seems to bring a fierce singularity to every role, whether it's the swirling CG rabbit holes of Disney's live-action Alice in Wonderland or far-out indie fare like Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive. Even at the movie's silliest and most unsteady moments, she's the ballast: a Judy bruised but unbowed — and finally, fully ready to punch back. B–

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