MR PIP. Starring Hugh Laurie, Xzannjah, Healesville Joel, Eka Darville, Florence Korokoro and Kerry Fox, Emily Barclay. Directed by Andrew Adamson. 116 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and violence).
Mr Pip is a New Zealand production, based on a story by Lloyd Jones, a journalist reflecting on the experiences of Bougainville in 1989, the closure of the copper mine, the financial crisis and the international companies, the rise of rebels and the intervention of the Papua New Guinea military. It has been adapted for the screen by the director, Andrew Adamson, director of the first two Shrek films and the first two Chronicles of Narnia films.
The photography for the film, in Bougainville itself, is very beautiful and offers the audience the flavour of the South Pacific. The audience is immersed in the life of the village, the hardships of the blockade, the closure of the schools. Later in the film the action will move to Mt Isa in Queensland as well as to London.
In fact, the film opens in London where the central character, the 14-year-old girl grown to womanhood, Matilda (ZX) is visiting the Dickens Museum. Audiences will be wondering what the girl is doing in London. The film then moves to flashback and tells the story of the girl and her encounter with an Englishman, Mr Watts (Hugh Laurie making a strong impression).
The core of the film is Mr Watts deciding to start some classes for the children on the island. He is not a teacher but has a profound love of Dickens, especially for Great Expectations. This seems an unlikely book for children on Bougainville. However, he begins to read and the children respond, especially with their imaginations and the development of comprehension. Matilda responds very well to the novel, even to imagining herself in the situations of the novel, with Pip and Magwich in the cemetery, with Pip going to see Miss Haversham, with the grown-up Pip in London… The film is strong in showing the power of the storytelling, the power of the imagination, the possibilities for education with such storytelling. (And a reminder of how the Taliban takes stances against this kind of schooling for girls.)
There is a difficulty with Matilda’s mother, the leader of the church on the island, a Protestant-evangelical church, where she also conducts the choir, carries the Bible, and thinks that there is something too secular about reading Dickens instead of the Bible. When the military arrive, she has taken the book and hidden it in a large mat. There are dire consequences because of this.
While the sequences of Mr Watts working with the children are very congenial, the mood changes considerably with the arrival of the military, the toughness of the commander, the laissez-faire attitudes of his soldiers and their disregard of the locals. The commander makes the mistake of thinking that Mr Pip is a real person and that the village people are hiding him. When he returns second time, his avowed intention is to uncover Mr Pip with grim threats to the villagers. It is at this moment that there is a change of atmosphere with the shock of military brutality, murder and rape (and a reminder that this kind of brutality continues all over the world, in such places as the Congo and Sudan, and in the civil war in Syria).
The experiences have harsh consequences for Matilda. However, she is fortunate in being to go to Australia, to Mount Isa and stay with her father. And, in some act unexpected circumstances, she goes to London for the visit that we saw at the opening of the film. There she meets Mr Watts’s wife (Kerry Fox) and learns a lot about her teacher and why he was in Bougainville, about his Bougainvillean wife, her depression, the pathos of the reasons for it and Mr Watts’ self-sacrifice.
In many ways, the film takes on too many issues, so that during the film the audience have to move dramatically from one to another, sometimes surprisingly, but, by the end, within the two hour running time, the audience does have the opportunity to consider all these issues, whether political and economic, whether educational, whether economic or dealing with refugees and working migrants.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out: November 7 2013.