Retro Review: The Plumber

Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Peter Weir and Harold Lander
Starring Judy Morris, Ivar Kants, Robert Coleby, Candy Raymond

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Written by Gavin Bond

One may be surprised to learn that Aussie auteur Peter Weir followed up his groundbreaking 1975 classic Picnic at Hanging Rock and equally intriguing 1977 mystery The Last Wave with a modestly made TV Movie.

Based on a couple of real life incidents, Weir penned and directed The Plumber in 1979 as part of a South Australian Film Corporation three picture deal with Australia’s Channel 9 Network.

The film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival on the big screen that year before being aired on Australian television.

While this atmospheric tele-movie may not reach the heights of its director’s two predecessors, it is, nevertheless a thoroughly engaging, skillfully crafted and refreshingly succinct paranoia piece.

Judy Morris plays uptight anthropology student Jill, who resides with her stuffy medical researcher hubby Brian (Robert Coleby) in a small high rise flat as part of their University accommodation in Adelaide.

Tensions arise when the hired plumber Max (a wonderfully smarmy and menacing Ivor Kants) makes an unscheduled visit to check the pipes in the bathroom.

The burly contractor then decides to return each day and psychologically harass Jill while commandeering their bathroom, soon turning it into an unworkable construction site.

Jill and Max then wage a psychological battle of wills and war, one hell bent on intimidation and the other on revenge.

Like his previous films, Peter Weir ensures proceedings are both elusive and haunting and, unlike conventional psychological thrillers, never attempts to reveal or explain the eccentric titular character’s motivations or peculiar actions.

Instead, the narrative explores the protagonist’s complex interpersonal relationships and cleverly has the audience questioning Jill’s (not unlike Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby) sanity and perception.

This seemingly simplistic and minimalist drama also subtlety examines topics of class equality, academia and indigenous culture within its multi-layered screenplay.

Despite being principally set within a claustrophobic apartment setting, cinematographer David Sanderson ensures, through the use of disorientating and inventive camera angels, that the visuals are always engaging and the tension is ramped up.

While the unresolved denouement may not fully satisfy conventional audiences in search of a neatly wrapped conclusion, The Plumber is a playfully suspenseful and low key oddity that is definitely worth checking out.

At the very least, it delivers a sneak peek into the considerable directing chops and storytelling skills of Peter Weir, who would go onto deliver many a cinematic masterpiece (Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poet’s Society) in years to come. 


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