Review by Jane Freebury

After a few films you can get to know a director and the private obsessions and personal politics that set up a conversation with audiences who recognise the promise in the filmmaker’s byline. They know that they can expect stylish uber-violence from Tarantino, that Woody Allen will be talking about his hang-ups again and that Wong Kar-Wai will deliver a dreamy experience with a bit of a story attached.

Others are much less easily pegged and keep re-inventing themselves defiantly, always a step ahead of the journalist trying to net the essence of their work with a neat turn of phrase. Clearly Rolf de Heer is one of these.

A new film by de Heer has become an event, as we’ve come to expect the unexpected from this maverick Adelaide-based director and we anticipate a good yarn from him because he tells a great story, where others flounder. There’s often a good yarn in the story behind his films too.

There was some old filmstock way past its use-by-date lying at the back of the fridge during the making of Ten Canoes, and it gave him the idea for a silent B&W comedy. A film like the Chaplin and Sennett silent comedies that he’d enjoyed as a child.

Next he found himself some actors who could do slapstick. Adelaide street busker Nigel Lunghi plays Dr Plonk with acrobatic skill and flair, slipping on banana skins, climbing steel girders and nimbly dodging policemen in some classic chase sequences. And he is ably assisted by Paul Blackwell as his assistant, Magda Szubanski as his winsome wife and Tiberius the dog, who very nearly steals the show.

After calculating that the end of the world is nigh, Dr Plonk builds a time machine to confirm that his predictions are correct. It lands him the wrong place at the wrong time, and he is nearly swarmed at a girl’s school, and nearly roasted by cannibals wearing grass skirts over their shorts. Then towards the end there’s a run in with the anti-terrorism squad, introducing a more serious mood, though the wonderful jaunty score continues.

A B&W silent comedy isn’t such a crazy idea either when you hear about the revival of interest in silent cinema, with established festivals in the US and Europe. There’s even one dedicated to silent slapstick in Bristol, UK. And besides this, the slapstick comedic tradition has been carried into sound movies and TV by the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Jacques Tati.

Dr Plonk is made with great skill and verve and is a fine new edition to the silent comedy tradition. I think audiences will catch on.

3.5 stars