Footage of it being performed for kids in Bondi Junction in the 1930s – some of which airs at the end of the film – shows many in tears, their faces filled with horror.
Remarkably, Foulkes wrote the screenplay before the Time’s Up and #metoo stories emerged. A dark, feminist revenge tale, it has a particular resonance today.
The film centres on the titular characters, a husband and wife played by Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman. They are puppeteers with a young baby: Punch is the public face of the show, while Judy is the brains behind it. He is a self-obsessed narcissist – the classic alcoholic philanderer, who promises to stop drinking and reform, but never does.
A strong, resilient woman, Judy cherishes her child and puts up with her husband but becomes increasingly frustrated with him. A tragic event is the tipping point; from this moment, the movie becomes the story of a woman on a mission for justice.
Foulkes tried to imbue Punch with some redeeming qualities. “I didn’t want it to feel like it was a man-bashing, gender-heavy thing,” she said. “It’s complicated when you’re dealing with such weighty human themes.”
Herriman says it’s one of the best scripts he’s read. “[Mirrah] has created a world that feels like a classic fairytale we all grew up with. It feels like it’s in that world of Hansel and Gretel, a story that’s been around for hundreds of years.”
Wasikowska says she “loved the unique language that Mirrah used. It’s a period film but it feels [like] its own unique world, slightly fantastical”.
Taking cues from real-world scenarios, the mob mentality is an ongoing theme. From witches burnt at the stake to women being stoned to death today, it’s a timely reminder about the power of those in authority and the herd mentality that can accompany them. There’s a strong allegory for social media and the polarising mentality that can pervade public discourse. Even when an idea is unthinkable, it seems it can be spun to become palatable.
“I love that idea that you can put something in a charismatic, crowd-pleasing way and somehow it can work – you can get a lot of people to agree it’s a great idea,” says Foulkes.
The film is set in Seaside, a European town nowhere near the sea. “From very early on I wanted it to be in a European setting. I wanted to anchor it in a particular time, that was 1770s,” Foulkes says. “At the same time, I wanted it to be like a world-building exercise: no place and no time.”
The production brief was ambitious. Set in the 18th century, it was filmed in and around Melbourne, at Olinda and Eltham. The European context meant avoiding gum trees and local fauna and seeking out plantations of pines and other appropriate landscapes; the Dandenongs came into their own.
For production designer Jo Ford, working on an imagined reality was liberating, especially given her work on historical films that need to be to-the-letter correct.
“I thought that people who love a Wes Anderson movie might love this too. Only because rules don’t apply – you’re going with a feeling, a time and space, then it becomes about the actors’ characterisation of their selves.”
Adding to the production’s complexity, the shoot required lots of animals. “Suddenly [the animal] meets a very sticky and graphic end,” says Ford. “It was a thing about playing with people’s emotions: in this beautifully lit, organic, textured world, something horrific happens.”
Foulkes says she is interested in ”that moment where you sideswipe an audience … when you think you’re in one thing and you find yourself in something else”.
On set at Monsalvat, the Gothic-style artists’ colony on the outskirts of Melbourne, it’s not difficult to imagine oneself in another part of the world. “It’s all about straight lines and pointy, pointy things,” says Ford. “The savagery of our architecture is contrasting with the beautiful, sinuous shapes of our actors, the stunning hair on the heretics, the beards.”
Montsalvat’s interiors , filled with actors in costume and makeup, conjure a timeless reality. Worlds within worlds transport the audience, each encapsulating something of the characters’ realities, whether the constable’s office, the heretics camp or inside Dr Goodtime’s tent.
Ford says it was a tiny art department for the scope of the project: “There’s about 12 of us; there should be about four times that.”
Especially towards the end of the film, there is an element of make-believe, requiring the audience to suspend disbelief. For Foulkes, that playful element was intrinsic. “I really wanted to embrace this classic silliness in the style of the story. It’s a very classic hero journey and I wanted to lean in to those big, over-the-top films that I loved when I was young.”
Her wide-ranging influences played a part. “It feels weird to quote it but The Princess Bride was such an important film for me, any Kubrick film; that really direct sense of tone. There’s a whole Monty Python thing that filtered through to me that I loved in terms of humour.”
The film aired to a “vocal and responsive” audience at Sundance, much to the filmmaker’s relief. There are moments in the film – including some of the most significant – when you’re unsure how to react. Foulkes enjoys that ambiguity and says it reflects something of the original puppet show. “You can feel people warm into the freedom – oh, it’s OK to laugh,” she says.
Nominated for nine AACTA Awards this year, including best film, best direction and best screenplay, and selected for Sundance and the London Film Festival, Judy & Punch is making an impact. “For a first feature it was sort of insane,” Foulkes says with a laugh.
It’s been a long, hard slog but she feels fortunate Vice backed her. “They were looking for bold, unique filmmakers and they didn’t really care who they were… I feel really lucky to have snuck in that door.”
Judy & Punch opens nationally on November 21.
Writer/director Mirrah Foulkes will be in conversation with the lead actors in the film and other filmmakers at selected screenings nationally, see madmanfilms.com.au/judy-and-punch/.
Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald