Mia Wasikowska Is the Master of Puppets in Genre-Bending Medieval Romp ‘Judy & Punch’
“Judy & Punch” moves with the energy of a movie that cheerfully subverts its own genre. It is a medieval fable and a dark comedy about outsiders and addictions. Part of its zest comes from its genesis. Writer-director Mirrah Foulkes had never written or directed a full feature film until her short films landed her the opportunity to make this one. “I decided to treat it like a world-building exercise,” Foulkes told Entertainment Voice, “a sort of fantasy land where we could speak to some of the stuff that was going on politically and socially around that time.”
Set in the rural spot of Seaside in medieval England, the story follows Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and hard-drinking husband Punch (Damon Herriman). Together they run a puppet show which establishes the traditional “Punch and Judy” puppeteer tradition of gags involving a married puppet couple. But behind the scenes Punch is an abusive lout, obsessed with attracting “talent scouts” while sitting around, raving and drinking. He can’t even be trusted with watching after the baby while Judy runs some errands. It is the middle ages so heretics are also prone to be burned at the stake or stoned to death by locals. When Punch commits an unforgivable act of negligence, he and Judy get into a bloody brawl that results in her being exiled with a group of outcasts surviving in the nearby woods. While Punch stubbornly tries to continue pursuing his selfish ambitions, Judy will plot her revenge.
In the tradition of other revisionist, postmodern romps like “A Knight’s Tale,” this movie is enjoyable in how it sticks closely to a period film tradition while having fun with it. The production design and cinematography are richly detailed, but the acting and themes are strikingly contemporary. Judy and Punch may live in a distant century, but their relationship could be any mismatch going on today. Judy has to take Punch’s abuse while he daydreams like some wannabe trying to get into Hollywood. It is a confident directing debut for Foulkes. “I tend to function through so much fear as a writer especially, because I’m constantly worried that I’m not good at what I do. It was such a new role in this industry for me. I was an actor for such a long time. I spent the whole process feeling like I was going to let Vice down and really wanted to impress them,” she said. “It was only after I finished the film that I was able to sit back and reflect on how for a first film it was an incredibly easy process because I had the support of this great company and incredible producers.”
There’s an almost anarchic energy to the film as Judy and Punch do their shows and then squabble at home. “I was sort of panicked and I did what you’re supposed not to do, I went home and opened a final draft document and just started spilling shit out onto the page. In retrospect I’ll never do that again (laughs). But there was some part of it that was interesting because I was completely unfiltered and I had months before I had to show it to anyone, so it just spilled. It’s very me and very unfiltered and organic.”
“Judy & Punch” is not a high budget affair, yet has a baroque texture to its sets and overall design. Some of the puppetry scenes look lit by Caravaggio. Goyaesque drunks and maidens sit in the audience cheering, and around town a shy constable has a cap that looks like an ancestor of London’s trademark police hats. “It was a very hard shoot but also totally joyful. There’s something about coming on to those sets, especially in world like this that is so weird and wonderful, tactile and visual, I think everyone really felt that, like ‘what the hell are we making?’”
The anchors of the film are Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman. Both projects strong personalities with a sense of dark tragedy. Damon’s Punch knows Judy is the real star of his show, she’s the one who can make the puppets come alive when it is her hands handling the strings. This no doubt fuels the growing alcoholic rages that eventually explode in terrible violence. “With Mia and Damon it was interesting,” said Foulkes, “they are both so good and have both had amazing careers. But they are completely different actors. They are different in their approach, yet they work amazingly well together. There was nothing but love. But they have different working methodologies. Damon is totally OCD, he works so hard. He researched things to the inch of their life. He’s one of those actors who works his ass off then manages to let go of the work and come in and be really loose and wonderful. He wants to do more and more takes and has new ideas. That’s just a dream… Mia on the other hand is a very intuitive actor. She’s one of those actors that is really mesmerizing in her stillness. She has to do very little. And she has a funny relationship to the work. She almost has this love/hate relationship with being emotionally exposed and vulnerable. And I feel that as an actor as well, when you just don’t want that fucking camera looking at me.”
Foulkes understands the hard task of conjuring a character well having acted in shows like “The Crown” and films like “Animal Kingdom.” “It’s weird and something unquantifiable and difficult to describe. But having said that every actor works so differently. Sometimes you are faced with an actor who works so differently from you that you don’t know how to direct them (laughs). So you have to make it suit whoever you’re working with. I can still get intimidated by actors for sure, but having a sense of what they go through is quite useful.”
“Judy & Punch” is almost a rebellious work about the outsider experience. Judy has to find refuge in the forest where “freaks” accused of witchcraft and other heresies live, drink and train (with Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” playing on the soundtrack). She then must trek back to Seaside and demand vengeance from Punch, especially after he tries to frame two elderly townspeople for his crimes. “I guess in all of my work I like to explore this idea that humans are delicate and fragile and are innately good but are sometimes not capable of it. I think if you’re trying to draw contemporary parallels between the film and what’s happening now it’s certainly as simple as having a sense of understanding and kindness for what is other to you. That will always be an urgent theme in any human culture in any timeframe. As we are very acutely aware of now, we’re very good at being afraid of each other. I hope as we evolve we become better at that.”
“Judy & Punch” is available June 5 on VOD.