Mr. Pip

November 16, 2013
Mathilda (Xzannjah), Mr Pip (2013)
Mathilda (Xzannjah), Mr Pip (2013)

Directing the Shrek movies and Chronicles of Narnia may seem a strange preparation for a movie about the bloody conflict in Bougainville in the early 1990s. It would be good to report that Andrew Adamson removes all doubts in his film adaptation of Lloyd Jones’s acclaimed novel, Mr. Pip, revealing himself as a truly versatile talent. The truth, however, is that Mr. Pip is an uneven film that aims to be inspiring, but leaves the viewer with a lingering feeling of sadness.

We meet the lead character and sometime narrator, Matilda, in London, visiting the Charles Dickens Museum. We realise that the story will unfold in Matilda’s recollections as we chart her path from the South Pacific to England, discovering the role Dickens plays in this journey.

The story begins promisingly enough, with glorious shots of the tiny village of Pidia, looking like a fairytale tropical paradise. Matilda, played by talented newcomer, Xzannjah, is 14 years old, and lives with her mother. Her father has gone to work in Australia, following the closure of the Bougainville copper mines. These have become a point of conflict between the goverment of Papua New Guinea and the the islanders who believe they have not been given a fair share of the wealth generated.

That conflict is closing in on the village. A blockade has been placed on the island, with food imports, medical supplies and fuel for generators being cut off. Many people fled before the blockade, leaving Mr. Watt (Hugh Laurie) as the sole white man on Bougainville. A melancholy character dressed always in a grimy, white linen suit, Mr. Watt is occasionally seen pulling his islander wife, Grace (Florence Kokokoro) in a cart through the village. He wears a clown’s red nose on these excursions, encouraging the islanders to think that he is as mad as his silent, blank-faced spouse.

It is only when Mr. Watt decides to take over the role of schoolteacher that the children in the village recognise his kindness and decency. His unorthodox approach to education is to read a chapter a day from Great Expectations, in the hope that hs pupils find the book as inspiring as he did.

Matilda is his great success in this regard. She becomes obsessed with the story, imagining herself as Pip’s sweetheart, playing out fanciful scenarios in her imagination.

These fantasies seem woefully brittle when the PNG soldiers arrive in the village, intent on imposing their authority on the local population. Pidio becomes a place of terror and brutality, in which the name “Mr. Pip” plays a confused and tragic role. These are the scenes that stay in one’s mind, making Matilda’s day dreams of Dickensian London seem filled with pathos.

The fantasy sequences are the weakest parts of the film, featuring characters wandering around in Victorian costumes made from the colourful Dutch Wax fabrics so popular in Africa. The Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare, has made an entire career out of using these fabrics to critique aspects of European colonialism. This tactic feels stagey and smug in Shonibare’s work, and no less so in Mr. Pip. It serves as a distraction from the heart of the story, which is about the transformative power of great literature.

In the book, Mathilda identifies with Pip, caught between his temperamental sister, and her kind-hearted husband, Joe Gargery the blacksmith. Her mother (Healsville Joel) plays the role of the sister, while Mr. Watts is Joe. The film is never quite so explicit, but it sticks with the idea that the personality clash between mother and teacher is the trigger for the disaster that will unfold.

Another impotant strand concerns Matilda’s gradual uncovering of the story of Mr. Watts’s life. She completes this task by going to London, and realises the sense of those words Dickens puts in Pip’s mouth: “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home.” More miserable still, despite the director’s efforts at a redemptive ending, is the feeling this particular paradise has been irredeemably lost.

Mr. Pip
NZ/Australia/PNG, rated M
116 mins,
Written & directed by Andrew Adamson, from the novel by Lloyd Jones; starring Hugh Laurie, Xzannjah, Healsville Joel Eka Darville, Kerry Fox, Florence Korokoro

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 16 November, 2013.