Foulkes, who’s also an actress, is a member of Blue-Tongue, the filmmaking collective set up by Joel and Nash Edgerton and her husband David Michod (The King). This is her feature debut as a director and it’s an inventive and audacious effort. She’s made a satirical fable out of Punch and Judy’s turbulent partnership, shooting the story amid the medieval-style buildings of Montsalvat, the artists’ colony in Victoria established in the 1930s by Justus Jorgensen.
Here, she and her crew have created a 17th century village. Fancifully named Seaside, it’s a land-locked island of misery run by a couple of God-bothering bureaucrats whose idea of entertainment is an afternoon spent stoning witches – tough competition for a mere marionette show. Nonetheless, Punch and Judy keep on drawing a crowd, largely because of Judy’s skills as a puppeteer.
Punch, played by Damon Herriman (fresh from his turn as Charles Manson in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is front of house, enthusiastically spruiking the show’s attractions – and his own – while Mia Wasikowska’s Judy modestly remains backstage, pulling the strings. Before she can apply this talent to her life at large, it’s already clear some consciousness-raising is urgently required.
As inspiration for decor and costumes, Foulkes and her crew looked at Dutch paintings of the period, but don’t expect any Vermeer-like passages of luminosity or serenity to seep into the picture. The look is grimy, the tone is wacky and the pace is hectic. It’s very much a cartoon view of the past with leering villains, extended slapstick routines and a rich overlay of gallows humour.
When it comes to comedy, Foulkes’ script isn’t interested in preserving any taboos, but the vitality with which the laughs are carried off neutralises all shocks. It’s as if she has absorbed the tone of offhand brutality that defines the puppet show’s style and re-directed it. She has also appropriated most of its characters, re-shaping their parts to suit her needs.
In any fairytale worth the name, a forest is obligatory, although there are variations in the role it’s expected to play. It can be a haven, a war zone or a place where your worst nightmares are realised. In this case, it’s a refuge. A coven of benevolent witches have made their home in the wood near Seaside, having avoided an appearance at Stoning Day. In this sylvan stronghold, known as the Heretics’ camp, they’re joined by Judy after Punch eventually pushes her to the limit of her forbearance.
Wasikowska has made some game choices in her career, mixing up her role in Alice in Wonderland and its sequels with work for directors who like to surprise. Her blonde paleness hints at fragility, but that impression has often been confounded and as Judy, she does it again. Once her anger has been aroused, there’s no stopping her.
She’s backed up by some familiar Australian faces happily adapting to the subversive environment Foulkes has conjured up. Gillian Jones offers sound counsel as the Heretics’ camp’s resident healer, a bemused Terry Norris is Punch’s elderly whipping-boy, Scaramouche, and yes, there is a baby.
There’s a danger in this kind of exercise, especially when you’re dealing with comedy. Charles Dickens once summed up Punch and Judy as “an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or a model for any kind of conduct”. And he was probably right. Any taint of earnestness would have killed this film, as Foulkes is clearly aware. As a result, she’s cannily approached it in the spirit with which it was meant. She’s successfully matched its urge to amuse and outrage with her own.