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Dr Plonk

Year: 2007
Production Co: Australian Film Finance Commission
Director: Rolf de Heer
Writer: Rolf de Heer
Cast: Nigel Lunghi, Magda Szubanski
We've only had one other serious homage to the silent movie in the modern age, Mel Brooks' 1976 Silent Movie. In it, Brooks and cohorts Dom Deluise and Marty Feldman conspire to bring the biggest names in Hollywood together to star in the first silent movie made in decades.

More than just a movie about a silent movie, Silent Movie is actually itself a silent movie, and short of late night documentaries and Bill Collins on TV, it was the first time most moviegoers from the Boomer and Gen X years had ever seen a film play to a completely orchestral soundtrack, the written dialogue appearing on screen during the action.

Rolf de Heer has gone one further. He's made a silent movie that could easily have come from the year it's set (1907). With the styles of acting, comedy, film technique, make-up, lighting and effects that befit the period, it's almost beside the point to ask whether Dr Plonk is a good movie. It seems just as important to judge the film on the merit of it being an authentic movie.

In this regard, Dr Plonk is surely the first true silent movie there's been since Al Jolson first said 'You ain't seen nothin' yet' in 1928's The Jazz Singer at the birth of the talkie era.

From an era when there was a single camera taking nothing but long shots, the flourishes of performance and movement perfectly suit de Heer's cast, led by South Australian street performer Lunghi. You can't even say it's slapstick like The Three Stooges or The Marx Brothers as the technology, era and styles in the film come from even earlier.

Using a single camera adapted for use with a hand crank, Dr Plonk tells the story of a grumpy, impatient inventor who comes to believe the world will end in 100 years. When the parliament of the day laughingly dismiss him, Dr Plonk promptly invents a time machine to travel to 2007 and take back proof of his theory.

A tangled web of action and reaction ensues as Plonk's hapless lab assistant (Blackwell), his wife (Szubanski) and even the family dog are whisked back and forth between the centuries in their high tech machine made of a wooden crate, landing in bigger trouble every time.

De Heer even manages to squeeze in some sly social comment as Plonk's visitations spark a law enforcement panic, SWAT and anti-terrorism squads called out to deal with the disappearing, reappearing box. But everyone's in character, and the elite troops end up stumbling, falling and rolling around after Plonk, his family and co-workers like Keystone Kops.

De Heer and his small crew must have soaked up every detail they could find about silent films - from the camera angles to the storytelling styles - and it shows not only that they know their stuff but also that they and the cast had a great time.

The question is whether 21st century audiences used to dinosaurs loose in cities or trucks turning into robots would respond to a silent movie. It's a comedy and the universal appeal of laughter is there, but there's also a strong novelty factor that has some difficulty keeping hold of you for the entire 80-plus minutes, and you can't help feeling Dr Plonk would have been improved with some trimming.

But for pure inventiveness, the film deserves to be seen - especially if you've never seen a real silent movie. Of course, now that you'd have to be around 90 to have seen one, it's an art form we're in danger of losing from our collective consciousness, and that's reason enough to enjoy Dr Plonk.

And trivia buffs, watch out for current South Australian premier Mike Rann playing his on screen self.

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