As civil war rages on in the province of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, the only white man left on the island, enigmatic teacher Mr. Watts (Hugh Laurie), reads to his pupils from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. The 14 year old Matilda, (Xzannjah), is transported by her imagination and the world of Dickens, becoming transfixed by the characters and Mr Watts' interpretation of the story. The Redskins, an army sent to destroy the local rebels are getting closer. When Matilda writes 'Pip' in the sand, the simple act leads to terrible consequences when the Redskins suspect Pip to be a rebel leader and demand he be brought before them.
Review by Louise Keller:
I love films that surprise me and this heartfelt and unexpectedly powerful film that uses Charles Dickens' Great Expectations as a catalyst for inspiration, certainly does that. The film begins as one thing and develops into something far deeper and richer when you least expect it. Like Pan's Labyrinth, whose protagonist uses fantasy to cope with harsh reality, the young girl at the centre of Mr Pip finds inspiration in Dickens' 1860 coming of age novel to counter her existence and cope with the dire challenges in her Bougainville island home.
Don't let the fact that director Andrew Adamson is known for Shrek and The Chronicles of Narnia fool you into thinking that this is a children's film; his adroit adaptation of Lloyd Jones' novel beautifully captures the idyllic setting and laid-back lifestyle, the innocence of the children and the devastating impact of the 80s copper mine related civil war. The result is an involving drama with well developed characters, humour, light and shade and an emotional cannonball at its core.
When Hugh Laurie's Mr Watts, the only remaining white man in Bougainville re-opens the local school, filling the previously dusty, cobweb-filled hall with wide-eyed, enthusiastic native children who are eager to learn, there is an instant change in the community. Sharing his passion for Dickens' novel and bringing the characters to life as he reads its pages out loud, any pre-existing barriers with the children are removed. There are wonderful, wry moments of humour as mothers join the class, offering their unique slant on life as part of the lessons conveyed. The local children are wonderful.
In a mesmerising performance, newcomer Xzannjah steals the film as Matilda, the young girl so inspired by Mr Watts' reading of Great Expectations, that the characters become real to her. The blending of imagined fantasies in 19th century costume in which Pip (handsome Eka Darville) appears and becomes her imaginary companion, soul-mate, protector and rescuer, is seamless. There is a fiery dynamic between Xzannjah and her mother Dolores (Healesville Joel) that works extremely well as does Matilda's bond with Mr Watts. (Laurie is terrific.) Dolores' belief in the bible to depict good and evil is profound; Mr Watts' conviction to decency emanates from elsewhere. The vision of Mr Watts, red-clown nose on his face and pulling a chariot on which stands his eccentric lady-love Grace (Florence Korokoro), known as the Queen of Sheba, is bizarre; the pay off comes later in the film.
The tranquility of the setting with its cerulean waters, lush greenery and tender pink sunsets is shattered and the film's mood turned upside down with the arrival of the soldiers. In different circumstances, the fact that they believe Mr Pip to be a real person that the locals are hiding would be amusing, but the tragedy of their ignorance and the imaginable horrors that follow are anything but.
Adamson cleverly entices us into the community and into Matilda's thoughts as the inspiration of Dickens' story propels us through the narrative. Dickens' words 'It's the most miserable thing to be ashamed of home' resonate. John Toon's beautiful cinematography inspires as does Harry Gregson-Williams's emotive score. Take a tissue - this is a film that touches the heart.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The talented writer and director Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Narnia) has elicited a set of superb performances from a mixed bag of a cast, ranging from Xzannjah, a 14 year old Papuan newcomer to the highly experienced Hugh Laurie and Kerry Fox, not to mention a great cameo from Emily Barclay. Equally notable are striking performances by the Papuan supports, such as the brutal army captain.
Just as well, because the novel offers several challenges for the adaptation, as its twirls from one thing to another - from a story about literature as the door to imagination and inner freedom to the brutality of ignorance and the lack of imagination, from a coming of age story to a character portrait, and a hero's journey.
A fine score and terrific cinematography contribute to the film's strengths, and help ease it over the thin spots which extend the film's running time unnecessarily.
Hugh Laurie's Mr. Watts is not really a teacher, but he steps into the role of one when the village in which he has come to nurse his traumatised wife, Grace (Florence Korokoro) is left without anyone else to do the job. The setting is the civil war that erupted in Bougainville as a result of a massive copper mine that created friction between rebels and the Government. So Mr. Watts reaches for Dickens in the belief that reading Great Expectations will be as good an education as any for the classroom of local kids. It seems to work a treat.
In an effort to visualise Matilda's (Xzannjah) attachment to the world of Mr. Pip, Adamson takes us into her fantasy world in the equivalent of flashbacks - except these are flashbooks, into the world of 18th Century London. Matilda's fantasy brings us the characters in vibrantly coloured period costumes, and Pip is a handsome young black man (Eka Darville). This device gets a bit creaky but the effect is to show us the leaps of imagination that Matilda is making.
The story gets more complicated as we discover the ructions in village society, some of which mirror those in any society, and Matilda learns the meaning of being a gentleman, which Mr. Watts explains is a title anyone can aspire to. It's being good mannered in all circumstances.
Matilda witnesses terrible ungentlemanly behaviour yet her fantasy world remains intact and when she meets the woman (Kerry Fox) who knew Mr. Watts before he moved to Papua, she finds it in herself to act like a gentleman. She has crossed from one society to another with grace.
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MR. PIP (M)
(PNG, Aust, NZ, 2012)
CAST: Hugh Laurie, Xzannjah, Healesville Joel, Eka Darville, Florence Korokoro, Kerry Fox, Emily Barclay
PRODUCER: Andrew Adamson , Robin Scholes, Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech
DIRECTOR: Andrew Adamson
SCRIPT: Andrew Adamson (novel by Lloyd Jones)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: John Toon
EDITOR: Sim Evan-Jones
MUSIC: Tim Finn (songs) Harry Gregson-Williams (score)
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Grant Major
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 7, 2013