Rolf De Heer, perhaps relaxing from the extreme directorial hardships of last year's Ten Canoes and the grim themes of The Tracker (2002) and Alexandra's Project (2003), has with Dr Plonk produced a featherweight comic curiosity. The result is a silent, monochromatic, fixed-camera homage to early slapstick film-making that transmits its maker's respect and glee.
It will be much sought after for festivals, especially following the success of Guy Maddin's Brand Upon The Brain!, which is more serious in intent but which is staged in not dissimilar fashion. Premiering at the final night of the Adelaide festival with a live band playing composer Graham Tardif's sprightly score, Dr Plonk is an oddball feature that weaves a curious but definite magic.
This quirky feature is set for release by co-backer Palace Films later in the year. How it will appeal to a general audience is tricky to gauge: an interest in movie history and an appreciation of early two-reelers may well be required.
That said, there's no language barrier to international release or understanding: the witty stand-alone captions can be translated into every language on earth. Indeed, it's pleasing to be reminded of the international reach of pre-sound film.
Relieved of modern widescreen production values, writer/director/producer De Heer takes obvious delight in his homespun, micro-budget sets, costumes, make-up and effects.
The zany plot begins in (and time-travels from) 1907 Adelaide, De Heer's home town, and the style and technicalities he employs stay rigidly true to that pioneering time. There's a single, deliberately clumsy pan among the locked-off wide shots, and when a vigorous chase sequence is shot from the back of a moving vehicle the sudden explosion into movement is exhilarating. It's possible for a modern audience to taste the blissful novelty of early movie going.
Eccentric inventor hero Dr Plonk (Lunghi) lives with his wife (Szubanski) and half-witted deaf mute assistant Paulus (Blackwell). Convinced by his experiments that the world will end in exactly 100 years, he attempts to persuade the Prime Minister that something must be done. Needing proof, he decides to build a time machine and check out the future for himself.
Plonk's ramshackle invention is delightfully silly and quickly achieved. The time-travelling compartment itself is only coffin-sized, with a small chimney that emits a puff of smoke each time Plonk departs into the future.
After a false start that takes him 10,000 years into the past (and into the arms of the cast of Ten Canoes), Plonk reaches Adelaide 2007, where his progress is followed in 1907 style. The tinpot time machine is soon puffing backwards and forwards, carrying all three household members in various combinations, sometimes with Tiberius, their ball-chasing-obsessed Jack Russell terrier.
Labelled a 'terrorist', Plonk is chased by 21st-century police, soldiery and the SAS in a spiralling climax. But, having set up this interesting end-of-the-world scenario, De Heer seems disinterested in making too many political points: broad comedy is his intention here, and references to Chaplin, Keaton, etc abound.
Banana skins are slipped upon many times, Paulus's backside is often booted and occasional longueurs remind the audience how hard Chaplin and company worked to keep the silent gags coming.
The experienced Magda Szubanski delights as the stern/simpering wife-mountain, while Nigel Lunghi and Paul Blackwell, both athletic street performers in their first feature, bring welcome energy and eccentricity. Tiberius steals his every scene with effortless over-enthusiasm.
Tardif's wall-to-wall music is both faithful to the sources and instantly enjoyable, and is recorded by The Stiletto Sisters, an attractive acoustic group comprising piano, double bass, violin and piano accordion. Played exuberantly live, the combination of music and silent film is a film buff's sheer delight.
Film Finance Corporation Australia
South Australian Film Corporation
Adelaide Film Festival
Rolf De Heer