The Plumber: quirky character study commenting on the gulf between social classes and the sexes

Peter Weir, “The Plumber” (1979)

Originally made for television, this low-budget film combines the psychological thriller with cheerful larrikin Aussie black comedy and light commentary on the gulf between social classes in a supposedly egalitarian society. Dr Cowper (Robert Coleby) and wife Jill (Judy Morris) are renting a flat in the university administration building where Cowper lectures and does research on health issues affecting a tribe in Papua New Guinea. Jill is in the process of finishing off her thesis for her Master of Anthropology studies on PNG tribal culture. One day a cheerful plumber, Max (Ivar Kants), turns up and claims he’s required to carry out maintenance work on the plumbing in the Cowpers’ unit. A job that initially was to take no longer than half an hour to a couple of hours becomes unending toil stretching over five days, to say nothing of the torment Jill endures from Max who plays his radio too loudly, sings and strums guitar on the job, spends too long on too many breaks for morning and afternoon teas and lunch, and turns the bathroom into a cross between a wreck and a war zone. Scaffolding left in the bathroom turns it into a veritable labyrinth and nearly ruins a dinner party given by the Cowpers when one of their guests is floored by a fallen bathroom sink. But the physical damage is nothing compared to the psychological harassment from Max towards Jill: he bullies her, manipulates his way into the apartment, lies about his past (is he or isn’t he a former convict?) and convinces everyone else, Dr Cowper and Jill’s best friend included, that he is a sweet and harmless eccentric.

The entire film is driven by the contrasts between Jill and Max: Jill is a passive middle-class good girl who, despite her experiences as an anthropology student, is socially awkward and doesn’t really understand people very much. An inkling of what we can expect from Jill comes almost immediately at the start of the film when she admits that a New Guinean shaman mesmerised her almost into a trance and she threw a rock at him: in short, she’s really at a loss at understanding people from a different social background and culture from hers. Max the larrikin plumber brings with him a lot of baggage that includes working-class resentment at the education and money of upper-class people and the opportunities these head starts give them. For all his insecurities, he reads the Cowpers’ naivety very well and knows how to annoy and harass Jill to breaking point. Hubby is obsessed with work and career ambitions and fails to realise that his wife is in danger from a man who could be a serial rapist. The actors playing the Cowpers and Max give these characters just enough to make them credible and substantial in spite of plot holes and the suspension of belief the plot requires: one would think that Jill ought to check Max’s credentials with the university administration before allowing him into the flat. Kants has to juggle a role requiring equal parts creepy and malevolent pest, would-be social critic / troubadour and lovable quirky eccentric; that he pulls off such a complex portrayal with energy and fun makes the film more nuanced than what it originally called for.

After over thirty years, the film does look outdated and some of the plot scenes look very hokey and laughable indeed. The climax in which Jill finds some backbone and descends to some very amoral and despicable behaviour is very awkwardly done. We do not see how such nastiness affects the Cowpers’ relationship or Jill herself as the film ends quite abruptly and this lack of denouement weakens the plot. At the very least the resolution suggests that there’s no point at which the liberal bourgeoisie and the working class can find common ground and the two classes will continue to clash: the upper class will use their advantages to keep ahead of the lower class and the lower class endeavours with street cunning to insinuate themselves into the upper class and weaken or dilute its power.

What gives the film longevity is its theme of the clash between what we consider normal and what we consider the Other as represented by Max and his bizarre ways. Max disrupts a couple’s comfortable complacency and his destructive actions change the two people’s lives forever. Jill may think she’s got rid of him but like the New Guinean shaman, Max ¬†or someone else like him may be a permanent fixture in her future, resurfacing time and again until eventually she must get to grips with what’s lacking in her character.

Human sexuality and the differences between men and women and how these influence the sexes’ conduct towards one another are a significant theme in the film that helps to inform the social gulf between two classes in a society that claims everyone is equal and has equal opportunities to succeed in life.

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