Judy & Punch: Mirrah Foulkes gives the puppet-show a 21st-century twist

The director of a twisted new puppeteering fable tells why it’s a good time to probe the underlying violence in many of our cultural tales.

Josh Slater-Williams

Judy & Punch (2019)

Judy & Punch (2019)

“I feel like it changes all the time. You’d think I’d have a roll-off-the-tongue synopsis by now, wouldn’t you?”

Australian writer-director Mirrah Foulkes has just been asked how she’s describing her tonally peculiar debut feature, Judy & Punch, not long before its bow in UK cinemas nationwide. “I guess I’m describing it as a dark and twisted 17th-century fable about puppeteers that’s very unexpected and hopefully not like anything you’ve seen before. I was really excited by the boldness of it.”

Judy & Punch doesn’t draw much from the historical origins of the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show, with Foulkes instead using the narrative of the show as a point of departure for a new tale, one re-imagining what might happen if Punch’s wife Judy were to not take his violent impulses in quite so submissive a fashion.

Mirrah Foulkes directs Mia Wasikowska in Judy & Punch (2019)

Mirrah Foulkes directs Mia Wasikowska in Judy & Punch (2019)

Much of the puppet show’s iconography appears in some form, from a crocodile and sausages to an interfering policeman and – fair warning – an infant in danger.

 Set in the town of Seaside in England, Foulkes’ film follows husband and wife puppeteers Punch (Damon Herriman) and Judy (Mia Wasikowska) as they stage their shows for rowdy locals inclined to mob impulses, where the most popular entertainment outside of their theatre is the public stoning of a suspected heretic.

Genre-wise, it’s probably most accurate to describe the film as a dark comedy, with a real emphasis on the dark when it comes to a game-changing moment in the first act that’s elicited horrified gasps in early screenings.

“It led me to think a lot about our relationship to violence in popular culture,” Foulkes says of the film’s development, “and how we tend to hold on to these kinds of stories and continue to tell them in the same way. And how interesting it is that some of them are starting to be re-examined or upended. I think it’s timely. There’s a lot to love about the Punch and Judy narrative, but there’s also a lot to question about why it is that we continue to tell these stories that can be very violent or deeply misogynistic.”

Continuing on that topic of timeliness, Foulkes points out that she started writing the script over four years ago: “It’s so funny how long it takes to develop a film, and then it lands in the world at a certain time and you just have to hope that it’s the right time, but the world changes very quickly. So, it happens to have landed in this current or post-#MeToo era where there’s a huge amount of discussion around gender politics, which is fantastic. But for me it started out very much as a film about our relationship to violence in our cultural tales. Historically, as now, that idea of violence towards otherness is often inflicted upon women.”

Currently best known as an actor, Foulkes’ on-screen credits include Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake (2013), Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011), and Animal Kingdom (2010), directed by her husband David Michôd. She is currently the lone female member of the filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films, which includes Michôd and actor-director siblings Nash and Joel Edgerton. Her directing debut came with the short Dumpy Goes to the Big Smoke (2012), which was followed by Florence Has Left the Building (2014) and Trespass (2016).

The reception to her shorts effectively led to her being head-hunted for the project that would become Judy & Punch. 

“The idea came to me through Vice in America,” she says. “They had bought a couple of my short films for their online short film channel. I guess they were tracking me as an emerging director, and they came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in developing and writing this idea for them.

“I was amazed that they wanted me to write the thing, and I wasn’t sure at that stage if they wanted me to direct it; I assumed they probably didn’t. They were encouraging me to go really big and bold and write whatever I felt interested in and go for it. Then they made it clear that they wanted me to direct it, so I had to actually figure out how to make the movie; there were a bunch of really big challenges in how we could do certain things for the money that we had.”

Judy & Punch (2019)

Judy & Punch (2019)

Getting a bankable star like Mia Wasikowska interested helped get things going, as well as the prolific Damon Herriman in the role of Punch. In a favourable bit of timing, the film’s release comes at the end of a year in which Herriman has had something of a breakthrough on the international stage, thanks to memorable turns as Charles Manson in both Netflix series Mindhunter and Quentin Tarantino’s Once upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), alongside a major supporting part in The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook (2014).

“You’re always juggling what is essentially a commercial art form,” Foulkes says of casting, “so it really helps when you have commercially meaningful actors in the leads. But there’s also making sure you have the right actors. I wanted to make sure I had actors that really believed in the project, loved it and would support it. And I found that in Damon and Mia, and I feel very lucky to have the two of them.”

Judy & Punch (2019)

Judy & Punch (2019)

Herriman gets one of the film’s more memorable intertextual moments of comedy to play with, in which an explicit nod is made to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). Without spoiling the exact nature of the reference, Foulkes describes the moment’s inception: 

“I’m writing this big speech for Punch. At that moment, I wanted the character to feel as though he was the centre of his own action movie. I wanted to speak to Punch having this incredible ability to place himself as a victim – that kind of narcissism. I also liked the idea of referencing something that talks about our obsession with violence as entertainment since way back.

“To be honest, when I first wrote it, I put it there as a placeholder and then I just found it ridiculously funny and had to keep it. I also really like this idea of dropping contemporary cultural references throughout the film to remind us that we’re in what is essentially a satire.”

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