It is the great year 1907 and Dr Plonk (Nigel Lunghi aka Mr Spin), famous scientist and inventor, calculates that the world will end in 101 years unless immediate action is taken. As befalls visionaries through the ages, Plonk is ridiculed for his beliefs, by politicians, by bureaucrats, by even his faithful manservant, the deaf-mute Paulus (Paul Blackwell). Proof is required and the only acceptable proof lies in the very future that's ending. Being the lateral thinker that he is, Plonk invents a time machine. In quick succession Tiberius the dog (Reg), Plonk and Paulus all visit the future, 100 years hence; even Prime Minister Stalk (Wayne Anthoney) and Mrs Plonk (Magda Szubanski) make the trip. Not everyone returns, but all find the year 2007 a somewhat different place than they expected...
Review by Louise Keller:
After the artistry of Ten Canoes, Rolf de Heer takes a left-of-field innovative step with the unexpected and wondrous Dr Plonk. The title alone playfully beckons its difference and our creative juices are immediately whetted. To create a silent black and white comedy in this age of digital resourcefulness is bold indeed, and de Heer takes a simple concept and polishes it until is gleams. Beyond its novelty value, Dr Plonk is fresh and funny, wacky and outlandish as it combines slapstick, situation comedy and an audacious premise. It's an endearing time-travel romp that allows us to look at today's society in a totally different light.
In Ten Canoes, de Heer grounded his film in the present, allowing us to connect with the legends of the past. Here, in an upside-down twist, the authenticity of the black and white silent film-style format grounds us at a time shortly before Chaplin took the world by storm. By leap-frogging 100 years into 2007, de Heer winks broadly, inviting us to come along for the ride. And it is quite a ride, with a small, excellent cast comprising a street performer (Nigel Lunghi, aka Mr Spin), a comic actor (Paul Blackwell) and comedienne par excellence (Magda Szubanski). Lunghi is perfect as the brilliant po-faced Dr Plonk, exercising his considerable skills of mime, acrobatics and juggling, while he juggles the complexities of finding proof that his world's-end theory is true. Blackwell is hilarious as the unfortunate deaf (and overtly dumb) assistant who botches everything up; while Szubanski's comedic brilliance has never seemed so easy as she blots her screen husband's brow as convincingly as cracking the whip. De Heer's daughter Phoebe Paterson de Heer is a sweet background ornament as the maid, but no-one steals the scenes like adorable and ultra-obedient doggie Tiberius, whose passion for chasing balls wins hearts as well as delivering laughs.
Especially impressive is the music score, in which accordion, piano and violin almost speak their thoughts. The violin trills as Dr Plonk's momentous day begins and describes the ticking of the clock in apt pizzicato fashion. The chuckles begin from the very first banana peel flung on the ground, and as Dr Plonk and side-kick Paulus journey to and fro the 21st century (in the ocean, on a railway line, at a girl's school and in an automobile plant), the pranks acquire a cumulative effect. I enjoyed the chase in which two police officers get themselves into acrobatic twists in their pursuit, although the terrorist reference falls flat. But there are many unforgettable moments, like the one when Dr Plonk's inspiration lightbulb lights up. This is one lightbulb of De Heer's that won't dim.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
How do you follow Ten Canoes? Well, you don't. You make a bit of space between it and your next film, which in the case of Rolf de Heer means making a film so unexpected that it will not be compared to Ten Canoes - or anything else he's done. Still, a silent comedy, one of the first and most popular genres of cinema, is just as bold as Ten Canoes, made in the face of ever growing sophistication in filmmaking. The notion of glancing backward at cinema styles has other aficionados, suggesting something of a cinematic zeitgeist. Good Night and Good Luck (George Clooney), The Good German (Steven Soderbergh), and Grindhouse (Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez) are recent examples that come to mind. All (including Dr Plonk) aspire to recreate the look of the classic period they admire, often by using the very same methods by choice that filmmakers once used through necessity.
Dr Plonk goes even further back than these others, paying tribute to some of the greats of the silent era, notably Chaplin and the Keystone Cops. But it's ambitions are not so backward; not so subtly hidden in the film are allegories and a satirical shot at the world today. (He's plonked back and forth in time throughout the film.) Within the humble Plonk home, a maid serves tea to the inventor and his wife, while Plonk designs a time machine so he can travel to 2007 and prove his calculations that the world will end. No-one believes him, of course, and the film's first target is the arrogant politician.
Plonk's deaf mute assistant Paulus (Paul Blackwell), whose butt gets kicked right or wrong, is the hapless slave to the brilliant man, and his rotund wife is his support team. Their dog fetches balls, the one constant in a changing world. The future, which of course is our present, presents a large enough target for satire, especially as the point in the scientific prophesy that all will end badly in this year, with climate change a central issue. But by abandoning this fine concept, de Heer diminishes the impact of the film, and the whimsy gives way to laboured symbolism as he shifts focus to an attempted satire about anti-terrorism. There is a sequence in which Plonk's time travel casket is shunted back and forth in time in a careless game being played back home by Paulus and Mrs Plonk (Magda Szubanski), while Plonk faces increasing numbers of cops and SWATs on terror alert as the casket appears and disappears. In the face of something they don't understand, they panic and assume Plonk is a terrorist. A valid point, but out of place.
This idea misfires as it invites us to sympathise with Plonk's plight, and the way it's presented, by extension, to real terrorists. Even if, as seems the case, the only terrorist de Heer has in mind is David Hicks, it strikes the wrong note. The fun and the frolics drain away, which wouldn't be a bad thing, but the audience is stranded in the midst of a complex set of responses which detract from the rest of the film.
But the film's technical fusion to its creative aspirations is inspiring, as is Graham Tardif's score, evoking the use of music as part of the script. Dr Plonk continues to showcase an inventive filmmaker who can turn a piece of string into a rope, a flimsy idea into a movie and the past into the present.
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ROLF DE HEER INTERVIEW
DR PLONK (G)
CAST: Nigel Lunghi, Magda Szubanski, Paul Blackwell, Wayne Anthoney, Quientin Kenihan, Mike Rann, Bogdan Koca
PRODUCER: Rolf de Heer, Julie Ryan
DIRECTOR: Rolf de Heer
SCRIPT: Rolf de Heer
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Judd Overton
EDITOR: Tania Nehme
MUSIC: Graham Tardif
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Beverly Freeman
RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 30, 2007