Dr Plonk Review

On the case of this DVD it says, rather self-deprecatingly, “another film by Rolf de Heer”. It's easy to sympathise, as it's hard to keep up with this Dutch-Australian director, and easy to suspect that what he does next will be quite unlike what he did last. Outside Australia, it is even harder to get a grip on him, as of his twelve features to date, only three have had a UK release and the film reviewed here was not one of them. So how do you follow an Australian Film Institute Award winner with all its dialogue in Aboriginal languages (Ten Canoes)? The answer is, you make a silent comedy – in black and white and Academy Ratio, shot with a handcranked camera, with dialogue and narration on intertitles, and with no sound whatsoever except for Graham Tardif's music score. As you do.

Dr Plonk is also science fiction, a genre that de Heer has essayed before, in Encounter at Raven's Gate (one of the three features that had a UK release) and Epsilon. It's 1907, and Dr Plonk (Nigel Lunghi) is at work in his laboratory. He calculates that the world will end in 101 years' time. He builds a time machine to travel to the future to warn the Australian Prime Minister, with the aid of his wife (Magda Szubanski), his deaf-mute assistant Paulus (Paul Blackwell), not forgetting the enthusiastic dog Tiberius (Reg the dog)....

Rolf de Heer had the idea for Dr Plonk when he found 20,000 feet of unexposed film stock in his refrigerator. A genuine silent-film camera couldn't be used as it was not able to shoot modern film stock, and silent-era lenses would not fit modern cameras, but de Heer and his DP Judd Overton were able to adapt a modern camera to use a handcranking mechanism. The shooting style was adapted to 1907 conventions, mostly master shots with the occasional insert. The film stock was much sharper than the stocks used a century ago, so this was used to make a visual contrast between the scenes set in 2007 (exteriors shot in Adelaide) and those set in 1907. There's genuine documentary footage of early-twentieth-century Adelaide at the beginning.

Technically this is quite something – particularly at a time when another silent-film pastiche, The Artist, is making waves and gaining likely Oscar attention. (I haven't seen it at the time of writing, so no further comments or comparisons. Another recent faux-silent is Charles Lane's 1989 film Sidewalk Stories, which I haven't seen. There's also Mel Brooks's 1976 Silent Movie, but that's in colour and not in Academy Ratio.) But Dr Plonk is quite charming, funny and entertaining – Reg the dog steals every scene he is in. Graham Tardif's score – for four musicians, on violin, piano accordion, double bass and piano – is very effective. However, the film is overlong by about 10-15 minutes and slightly outstays its welcome. Four years would pass before de Heer would make another film, 2012's The King is Dead. That hasn't been released yet – it's in postproduction as I write this – but I confidently predict that it will be completely unlike Dr Plonk. Or unlike anything else de Heer has made up to now.


Dr Plonk is released by Madman Entertainment on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 4 only.

As you would expect, the DVD transfer is in 4:3 and is not anamorphically enhanced. The image is windowboxed. Needless to say, the original materials – which went through that new-fangled process, a digital intermediate – are in much better shape than almost any real 1907 footage I can think of, and the transfer is very good. Blacks are solid and the shades of grey and the contrast, so vital in a monochrome picture, seem spot on.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0. As I say above, the only sound is the music score – de Heer resisted the temptation to include any dialogue or sound effects – and that's what you hear through the front and surround speakers. As there is no spoken dialogue, just English intertitles, there is no need for any subtitles on the feature. (There aren't any on the extras either.)

Some of the extras are in black and white. These begin with “The Making of Dr Plonk” (19:19(, which features on-set interviews with de Heer and the principal cast, as well as behind-the-scenes footage.

Rolf de Heer saw a street performance by Nigel Lunghi, a non-actor whose first and so far only film this is, and cast him on the spot. “Juggling Dr Plonk” (5:03) is an interview with him. As he talks about how he was cast, Lunghi displays his juggling skills.

Reg the Dog gets his own featurette in “The Ball Crazy Dog” (7:18). No, he doesn't give an interview, but Magda Szubanski and Paul Blackwell (Reg's owner) are on hand to talk about his obsession with balls.

“The Hand Cranked Camera” (8:36) is by definition a much more technical piece, in which Rolf de Heer and Judd Overton discuss the challenges of recreating the look of a silent film, such as how to compose shots in Academy Ratio and how to keep time while handcranking the camera. Generally, Overton cranked at a slower speed than the twenty-four frames per second the film was projected at, to give a slightly speeded-up feel that's quite appropriate for a comedy like this.

Dr Plonk was the fourth de Heer film that Graham Tardif had scored, and in “The Dr Plonk Score” (17:05) he discusses the different approaches he used for each one, particularly the challenge of producing a score where the music is the only sound heard. The music was played by a Melbourne-based trio The Stiletto Sisters with the addition of a pianist.

The extras are concluded by the film's trailer (1:34) and a 15-page study guide in PDF format. Also on the disc is “Madman Propaganda”, namely trailers for four other Madman DVD releases: The Major and the Minor (2:15), M. Hulot's Holiday (1:40), Metropolis and Early Summer (4:26). The subtitles on the last-named are yellow in colour.

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