It isn’t a spoiler to reveal that the closing credits to the enchanting Judy & Punch include footage of children watching puppet shows in rapt astonishment. The title itself hints that the story is an inverted version of the timeworn Punch and Judy tradition of puppet theatre, but writer-director Mirrah Foukles turns that inspiration inside-out and upside-down as she explores fresh angles on the ancient human fascination with violent and silly storytelling.

Traditional Punch and Judy productions became widely popular in 17th-century Britain, where the story begins as Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) and his wife and assistant, Judy (Mia Wasikowska), enthrall a rowdy pub crowd with their marionettes. It’s quickly evident that she is the more talented of the pair. Judy manipulates her puppet with finesse that suggests emotion and intent, while Punch is more interested in conking other characters over the head. But the audience is there for the conking, and Judy dutifully presents him to the roaring crowd as the “greatest puppeteer of his generation.” That imbalance sets the story in motion, and it isn’t long before professional tension spills over into their home life. He dreams of glory in the Big Smoke (London), while she would prefer that he just stop getting drunk and keep an eye on the baby while she runs to the market.

Things get bad fast, and it’s one of the charming ways that the film begins to feel like a puppet show itself. Shocking violence arrives in slapstick moments. You gasp in horror even as you suppress a cackle. As bit characters play for broad laughs, Judy finds herself alone and desperate with revenge brewing in her eyes. She finds refuge among a group of outcasts in the woods, a community of weirdos and free-thinkers where she fits right in. Deprived of Professor Punch’s show, the village begins to descend into madness for want of stimulation. They stone and hang suspected witches who committed such devilish acts as looking at the moon too long or having a rash.

It’s a dark thought that public executions are just one more way that humans entertain themselves. But Foulkes, a veteran actress making her feature debut behind the camera, doesn’t shy away from darkness despite the film’s occasional silliness. An early scene shows Judy entertaining her infant daughter with shadow puppets, drawing a line straight back to the earliest storytelling of cave dwellers around the camp fire. That the tropes of ancient puppet theatre have been inverted here doesn’t change the power of the story, as characters get their literal and figurative strings cut. Real people don’t behave this way, and the film’s resolution might feel overly glib, but that’s in the nature of stories designed to please the masses.

The lush cinematography and meticulous set design echo Monty Python and the Holy Grail, along with the collision of gore and slapstick, but Judy’s quest for respect and vengeance grounds the story in a more dramatic register. The soundtrack toggles the same contrast, including a synth-heavy Bach piece and an unexpected and affecting Leonard Cohen song. It all underscores the idea that the fundamentals of storytelling are timeless, whether it’s shadow rabbits on a cave wall, marionettes on strings, prisoners on the gallows or actors in front of a camera. We’re hungry for it all, and the best stories make us squeal in delight like children at a puppet show.

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