BUCHEON, Gyeonggi Province -- When director Mirrah Foulkes finished her first feature film, “Judy and Punch,” just before it was due to premiere at Sundance Film Festival in January, she put together a small screening in Sydney for the cast, “just so they could make sure they liked it -- decide whether or not to go to Sundance.”
After a pause and moment of relief, “They all went,” Foulkes said.
Mia Wasikowska (right) and Damon Herriman star in “Judy and Punch.” (BIFAN)
The premise of the Australian flick from Vice Films -- a relatively newer venture from the alternative media conglomerate -- was thin on the surface. “Someone had raised the idea about making a live-action film about Punch and Judy, which is a historical puppet thing, and it was very loose,” the director explained.
So take the violent puppet show of a domestic couple that has been popular with children in England since the 17th century and turn it into a feature film for modern audiences on a modest budget.
Foulkes was ready to take on the challenge, and after more than a decade of mostly TV acting, she was at an age and stage of her career where she was moved to take control in a more creative way.
“I never had any ambitions to direct,” she admitted in an interview with The Korea Herald at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival this summer, just before the film’s Asian premiere.
“I would’ve been very happy if I could have continued to have a busy career doing acting work that I really loved, but I started to feel as though I was having to take a lot of work that I didn’t love and in acting that’s very difficult because you have so little control.”
“Judy and Punch” -- the name order of the marionettes is switched to place emphasis on the female lead -- stars film festival favorite Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman (Charles Manson this year in both Netflix’s “Mindhunter” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood”) in the titular roles. The two portray a married show-biz couple in a small 17th century village. The older, drunk, has-been Punch quickly makes a series of tragically farcical mistakes that rip their family life apart, and places the abused and scorned Judy as an outsider.
“It was always going to be about reimagining it from a female perspective. And I think that’s kind of inevitable because the traditional puppet play is very violent and misogynistic,” Foulkes said.
Mia Wasikowska stars in “Judy and Punch.” (BIFAN)
A dark and still-lighthearted comedy, the film is snappy and paced quickly in period style with a strong musical score driving the action. And it is a joy unlike much else lately on the big screen.
“I knew I wanted to try and create something that is totally unusual. That was really intentional,” Foulkes said. “I wanted to create a slight of otherworldly world without it being called fantasy.”
After Judy is so severely wronged, “Judy and Punch” turns into an atypical revenge tale that becomes an allegory on xenophobia and religion -- as well as on toxic masculinity and gender roles.
“It (gender politics) is very prevalent in the film,” Foulkes said, although it was written well before the #MeToo movement. “It was definitely at the forefront of my mind, but there were a lot of other things that were thematically just as interesting, so it wasn’t just a film about gender. Even more so for me it was a film about violence and popular culture.”
Aside from gender yet still achingly topical, Foulkes explained, “The movie holistically is about the idea of otherness, being outcast from societies, being sort of stateless and pushed out of your home.”
When Judy finds herself shunned from the village she was once a celebrated part of, she finds a group where she fits in. She bands together with other outcasts and hatches a plan to deliver justice to a village apparently so ready to commit atrocities in their very literal witch hunt.
“You all live with the daily fear of your own difference,” Judy punctuates when she returns dramatically in front of the villagers. Like any good fairy tale -- however peculiar, odd or dark it may be -- a moral and lesson emerges by the end. And while that message may be pretty much as expected, the poetic justice in its delivery is a fitting, delightful surprise.
Mia Wasikowska stars in “Judy and Punch.” (BIFAN)
Confirming the themes and her intentions behind the film’s allegory, Foulkes was quick to add, “But it’s fun as well, I hope! It’s a comedy, if that sounds possible.
“I went in to make a film that was really enjoyable -- and absurd and silly -- and then it’s a satire essentially.”
While Foulkes said she would like to keep acting if she could, her focus is on working on projects she can creatively invest in, adding, “It’s nice to be in a position where I don’t have to take jobs I don’t want to take.”
“I’ve written another script I’d really like to make next year if I can,” Foulkes mentioned, referring to an adaptation of the 2004 Alice Munro short story “Runaway,” about a woman trapped in her marriage.
As for her transition from one side of the camera to other, Foulkes said it still came down to the actors.
“The hardest things are how to talk to actors and being comfortable around actors, and everything else I feel like if you set your mind to it you can learn,” the first-time feature filmmaker said.
“I found myself feeling really sympathetic to directors I had worked with as an actor who I felt frustrated by. Because suddenly I was like ‘Oh, OK, I get it.’”
“Judy and Punch” is set for its theatrical release in the UK and Ireland on Nov. 22, and expects to release in the US and Australia not too far in the future. It has already been nominated for nine Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, including for best film and direction.
By Kevin Lee Selzer (email@example.com)
Director Mirrah Foulkes (BIFAN)