Dr Plonk (Nigel Lunghi) and his mute assistant, Paulus (Paul Blackwell), are working in Plonk’s laboratory. Mrs Plonk (Magda Szubanski) slips on a banana skin discarded by Paulus. Summary by Richard Kuipers.
The first scene of Dr Plonk pays tribute to one of the most frequently used and reliable props in silent comedy – the banana peel. Audiences in 1907 knew that once a banana appeared somebody was bound to slip over, and nothing has changed a century later. In this case the honour goes to Mrs Plonk, played by popular comedienne Magda Szubanski (Babe, 1995; Kath and Kim, 2002–07).
Also noteworthy is the authentic look of the film. Cinematographer Judd Overton shot Dr Plonk on expired film stock and used a hand-wound motor such as that used in the silent era. Seen at the beginning of this clip, the archival footage of Adelaide in the early 20th century convincingly matches the new material.
In 1907 the eccentric scientist and inventor Dr Plonk (Nigel Lunghi) discovers the world will end in 2008. Plonk presents his findings to Prime Minister Stalk (Wayne Anthony), but Stalk and his sceptical advisers demand proof. With the help of Paulus (Paul Blackwell), his deaf mute assistant, and the support of hefty Mrs Plonk (Magda Szubanski), Plonk builds a time machine and travels to 2007. From what he sees on television and in people’s behaviour, Plonk is convinced his dire prediction is about to come true. But his attempt to warn 2007 Prime Minister Short (Hon. Mike Rann) turns Plonk into a terrorism suspect. Can Plonk get his message through and return safely to his own time?
One of a tiny number of silent movies made since ‘the talkies’ arrived in the late 1920s, Dr Plonk was a lark for eclectic Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer. Best known for intimate and frequently confronting dramas, including Bad Boy Bubby (1993), The Quiet Room (1996) and Alexandra’s Project (2003), de Heer used comedy to winning effect in the commercial and critical hit Ten Canoes (2006). Paying tribute to the greats of silent comedy, including Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops, de Heer’s Dr Plonk is a high-spirited throwback to the days of pure visual slapstick.
De Heer and cinematographer Judd Overton took great care to make the film look authentic. It was shot on expired film stock on a modern camera fitted with a hand-winding mechanism such as those used in the silent era. Several chase scenes were under-cranked to give the same ‘fast-motion’ look of old comedies. Shooting exteriors with available light, the camerawork and framing are as simple as they would have been in 1907, long before the advent of zoom lenses and the common use of pans and tilts.
Also true to the spirit is the acting style. Lead actor Nigel Lunghi – an Adelaide street performer making his film debut – maintains a deadpan look his archetypal character demands, while the rest of the cast use the heightened style of acting employed in the pre-sound days when physical movement and facial gestures were required to tell the story. The cast are clearly enjoying the challenge and no-one is better at it than Magda Szubanski. The admired comedienne from Babe (1995) and the Kath and Kim (2002–07) TV series is a delight to watch, whether showing care and concern as Plonk’s devoted wife or playing slavedriver to the hapless Paulus.
While Dr Plonk has the technical and performance attributes of a movie made 100 years ago, its themes are timely and relevant to modern audiences. As he visits the suburbs and city streets of contemporary Adelaide we can see our world through his befuddled eyes and perhaps even ask some of the same questions about how we live. Plonk’s prediction of imminent catastrophe doesn’t seem so far-fetched in these days of global warming, and his branding as a terrorist throws a spotlight on issues of security and justice in the post-September 11 world. The portrayal of Indigenous people (or ‘natives’ as they were called in less enlightened times) is also highlighted in a very funny scene in which Dr Plonk accidentally goes back 10,000 years.
Although not as widely distributed as most of de Heer’s films (Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times, 1936, and Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, 1976, are the only post-1933 silent films that have been widely released), Dr Plonk is an entertaining return to the fundamentals of movie comedy where banana peels, banging doors and swift kicks to the pants are the order of the day. All the antics are set to a delightful collection of jigs and sea shanty-like melodies by de Heer’s regular composer Graham Tardif.
For trivia buffs, Dr Plonk can also be added to the list of Australian films with appearances by high-ranking politicians. Joining Western Australian Premier Sir Charles Court in Nickel Queen (1971) and Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974) – bestowing the Dame title on Edna Everage, no less! – is South Australian Premier Mike Rann, who emerges with a credible performance as 2007 Prime Minister Short.
Dr Plonk was released in Australian cinemas on 30 August 2007.
Notes by Richard Kuipers