The Plumber is one of Peter Weir’s least-known movies. It was made for Australian TV in 1979, for a very low budget even by the standards of 1970s Australian movies, but it actually shows Weir at his best.
It was a return to the kind of black comedy combined with horror with which he’d had considerable success early in his career.
Jill (Judy Morris) lives with her husband in on-campus accommodation at Adelaide University. He’s a moderately successful academic who’s come up with a theory (which no other academic takes seriously) that nutritional problems in the New Guinea Highlands are caused by ritual cannibalism, a practice thought to have been stamped out many years before. Jill is also an anthropologist. The fact that they are anthropologists is actually quite crucial to the story. Their apartment is filled with artifacts from other cultures, in fact from every culture but their own. Even their erotica (for which they apparently have a bit of a taste) is non-European.
Jill is about to have a spectacular encounter with another culture, but this is another culture must closer to home. And unfortunately one she has never studied. She is about to to come face-to-face with a real live member of the working class. This will be an epic clash of cultures. Max is a plumber, and one day he knocks on the door to inform her that he’s come to fix the pipes. She wasn’t appear there was a problem with the pipes, but he assures her that those are the worst plumbing problems of all - the ones you don’t know about.
His initial estimate that the job will take three hours proves wildly inaccurate. Days later he is still there. Jill’s bathroom has been entirely demolished. The plumber shows no signs of leaving. And he’s displaying a slightly excessive interest in Jill. Jill’s husband is so busy chasing government grants for his latest research project and angling for a cushy UN job in Geneva that he takes little notice of Jill’s problems with the increasing annoyingly and intrusive plumber. And the bathroom continues to look like a bomb site.
Jill’s attempts to report the matter to the university authorities get her nowhere. When he finally becomes much too familiar with her she tells him to get out of her house. But she is convinced that he is watching. And when she tries to have a shower the bathroom suffers the plumbing disaster to end all plumbing disasters. And there’s Max the plumber on the doorstep, telling her she’s going to have to get used to him.
Judy Morris is always a reliable actress and she pays Jill with the right mix of arrogance, paranoia, and slowly increasing anger and fear. Ivor Kants is very good as the plumber - not quite threatening enough to give Jill a reason to call the police but threatening and intrusive enough to be highly unsettling. And it really isn’t at all clear what he’s actually after. He’s been in her house for weeks. If he wanted to rape her he’s had plenty of opportunities. That doesn’t seem to be what he wants. Maybe he’s hoping she’ll weaken and decide she wants him. It’s the doubt about his intentions that makes him so disturbing, and Kants plays the role to perfection. Candy Raymond contributes a good supporting performance as Jill’s slightly randy friend Meg.
Weir maintains the ambiguity of the situation with great skill. We keep waiting for something overt to happen, and Jill keeps waiting for the same thing, but nothing really happens. As a result the tension becomes almost unbearable.
The ending is delightfully twisted and in keeping with the overall black comedy feel.
There are all kinds of subtle commentaries on gender and class politics, and on cultural politics. But it’s done with extreme subtlety. You never feel you’re being lectured at.
This is a wickedly clever little movie, suspenseful and highly entertaining, intelligent and amusing. It was arguably Weir’s last great film. Highly recommended.