'Judy & Punch' Is a Dark Look at the Classic Story

We spoke to the movie's director, Mirrah Foulkes, and star, Mia Wasikowska.
Judy and Punch film still
All photos courtesy of VICE Studios.

The tale of Punch & Judy is a British seaside staple, so much so that I'd wager you still remember the story from your childhood: Mr Punch, our hero, is confronted with a variety of characters, all of whom typically fall victim to his slap stick.

At its heart, the seaside puppet show is a comedy, but a closer look at its history shows darker underlying tones: domestic violence, infanticide, the devil and the supernatural. In her new film, Judy & Punch – produced by VICE Studios – director Mirrah Foulkes set out to reclaim the story of Judy (Mia Wasikowska) using dark comedy and absurdism to tell a thrilling story of female revenge.


Shot in Australia but set in the fictional town of Seaside – miles from the sea – the film is a fantastical world-building exercise that flips the tale on its head and asks us to consider the female-centric story that history forgot. Ahead of the film's release we sat down with Mirrah and Mia to discuss the power of fantasy, unrecognised women's work and why the story has modern-day implications.

Warning: some light spoilers follow.

VICE: How did the idea for the film come about it?
Mirrah Foulkes: I was approached by [VICE US] about developing a live action Punch and Judy movie, so I did a bunch of research and tried to figure out what I thought it could or should be, how I wanted the movie to feel, how I wanted it to sit tonally, and then eventually decided to take it back to a historical setting and turned it into what is fundamentally a fictionalised origin story.

Mia, what drew you to Judy's character?
Mia Wasikowska: You always want to play a character that goes on a journey and has a big transformation, and I really liked the journey she went on – having to confront things that originally she thought were right, or having a stifled sense of herself, and then after experiencing this big tragedy having to really rebuild her sense of who she is and start from scratch as an individual, and the courage that took.

Judy and Punch Film Still

It's quite clear that Judy is both literally and metaphorically the one pulling the strings behind the Punch & Judy show, but isn't getting any of the recognition. Unrecognised women’s work has been a constant theme throughout history – was that something you wanted to touch on?
Mirrah: I thought it's really interesting – this idea of someone who's creatively really quite talented and delicate in their work being overshadowed by a megalomaniac; I was fascinated by that sort of dynamic. Punch is someone who needs to belittle and diminish the people around him that he's threatened by, and I think that can quite often be the case. Most horrible people are just deeply insecure and desperately trying to beat down anyone around them that feels threatening. I felt he was genuinely just a frightened little boy almost, who desperately wants to be seen and heard, and his ego and narcissism propel him and make him make really poor choices constantly. You see moments in the film where he has the potential to redeem himself and he just can't quite get there.


Do you think he gets there in the end?
Mia: He almost does…
Mirrah: But he's still got an audience, and his is the story that history remembers. Those little kids that sit down and watch his show through the prison bars, that's the story that gets told – it's not Judy's heroine story, it's not the story of a powerful woman. It's the story of a much less interesting, much less talented guy that we end up with today by the seaside.

Judy and Punch film still

I really enjoyed the way the film dealt with ideas of right and wrong. The people of Seaside seem to have a very black-and-white notion of good and evil, but the heretics and Judy seem to have a more complex, fluid understanding of morality. Was that something that was important to you as well?
Mia: That's what I loved about it. I love Judy's speech at the end about how, today, the witch is her, but how tomorrow it could be anyone else there, and I think you see that everywhere at the moment – that othering of people you are afraid of, or you don't understand, and there's a safety in that mob, but really you're all terrified that it'll be you next that's being stoned. I think that was such a great universal message that I think we need constantly reminding about.
Mirrah: The people in the town are not especially subtle, but I did love the idea that there was this little camp of others that were more emotionally evolved, and were thinking about things in more holistic, inclusive ways. We cast that group of people quite specifically – we wanted to have a lot of different versions of otherness represented in that camp. In those times, it was very easy to falsely accuse somebody, but also, if you had any sense of otherness, then you were really outcast. Unfortunately it's still the case now in different ways, but I think we're making huge inroads – we're evolving socially to be much more inclusive and kinder and more empathetic in some respects, but then in others it becomes even more extreme, our fear of the other.


One of the main themes of the film is the fear of female power. Could you speak on that a little bit?
Mirrah: Something really wonderful is happening at the moment, certainly in our industry. I don't know why it's taken us so long to realise but we're suddenly acutely aware of the imbalance between sorts of voices. As those voices get stronger and there are more of them, we'll get more and more familiar with stories about women, and that will I hope cease to be so confronting for people.

judy and punch film stills

There's also an element of the supernatural to the film in addition to the worldly "justice" enacted by the townspeople.
Mirrah: I liked this idea that there was a mystery around whether Judy had superpowers or not, and how that progresses. First, you see her doing very simple sleight of hand magic tricks, and the puppetry of course, and then you grow to see her do bigger and bolder and more fantastical things. I liked that as a through-line for her – as she grew stronger and more powerful, so too did her actions.

Was switching the narrative of Punch and Judy from a male-fronted story to a female-fronted one, and thus reclaiming that history, something you explicitly set out to do?
Mirrah: Definitely. I think those very small changes can be bigger in a representative way. I don't think you could have come at Punch & Judy in 2019 without looking at it from Judy's perspective.

The old footage you have at the end of the kids watching the Punch & Judy show is really interesting, because it seems to show that they’re not actually particularly enjoying it…
Mirrah: I love that archival footage, because to me it represents exactly what we're trying to say in the movie, which is that there's just such a fine line between being fascinated and intrigued and laughing at something, and then being horrified and crying at it. Those kids do all of that in the space of a couple of seconds. You see so many emotions crossing their little faces.

Judy & Punch is in UK cinemas from the 22nd of November.