Mr. Pip: Toronto Review

A dubious mélange of Dickens and disaster trumps an otherwise well-intentioned wartime drama.

Hugh Laurie stars in Andrew Adamson's adaptation of Lloyd Jones' bestselling novel.

TORONTO -- First class literature butts heads with a Third World massacre in Mr. Pip, an earnest but occasionally cringe-inducing story about one young woman’s Great Expectations obsession, and how it helps her to cope with the bloody civil war that racked parts of Papua New Guinea in the early 1990s.

Adapted from a 2006 novel by Lloyd Jones, this highly personal effort from Shrek director Andrew Adamson mixes magical realism with hard-hitting historical drama in a way that feels both contrived and questionable, even if the filmmakers clearly have their hearts in the right place. A lead role from House M.D.’s Hugh Laurie will help the polished Kiwi co-production find a reasonable following, especially in Pacific territories.

The factual record behind the narrative is engaging enough to merit its own movie: On the eastern Papuan province of Bougainville Island, local rebels launched a separatist movement in the late 80s, claiming control of the isle’s prosperous copper mines. In retaliation, the central government imposed a blockade that began in May 1990, leaving the indigenous population prey to warring tribal factions and raids by national troops eager to flush out the rebel movement.

Such is the situation in which endearing Bougainville teenager, Matilda (Xzannjah), finds herself at the start of the story, although solace soon arrives in the form of an eccentric English teacher, Mr. Watts (Laurie), who begins to read the Dickens classic aloud to his students in the coastal village’s one-room schoolhouse. While many of the townswomen—the men are mostly absent, either working abroad or hiding in the bush—initially object to Watts’ non-religious instruction, he eventually wins them over through his humble manners and warm sense of humor.

But just as the professor’s affable nature hides a darker backstory, the pleasure Matilda procures from daydreaming Dickens’ sprawling coming-of-age novel—whose more infamous scenes are reenacted by a Papuan cast decked out in Victorian garb—finds itself confronted with the brutal realities of the conflict.

The interplay between real and imaginary reaches its apotheosis midway through the movie, as government soldiers descend upon the village to wreak havoc in a lengthy sequence that’s at once stomach-churning and eye-rolling. The scenes of violent cruelty are truly painful to sit through, but their impact is completely upended by Adamson’s decision to cut in yet more Dickens references, which are backed by a preachy and unrelenting score from Harry Gregson-Williams (Total Recall, The Chronicles of Narnia).

Granted, the idea that classic literature helps Matilda make her way through the madness is an admirable one, but inserting feel-good Western fantasy into some otherwise horrific local events feels awfully dubious (and mildly colonialist), and ultimately the two parts of the narrative wind up cancelling one another out.

An extended epilogue that follows Matilda once she leaves the island seems more like an afterthought, even if first-time actress Xzannjah makes her character someone you want to root for. Laurie is likeable enough as the touching sad-sack Mr. Watts, but the way he suddenly decides to take a stand never quite seems plausible.

Warm widescreen cinematography from John Toon (Sunshine Cleaning) rounds out a pro tech package, while the gorgeous Bougainville Island locations are pure eye-candy.


Production companies: Strange Weather, Olympus Pictures, New Zealand Film Commission, NZ On Air, Daydream Productions, in association with Eyeworks Film

Cast: Hugh Laurie, Xzannjah, Healesville Joel, Eka Darville, Kerry Fox

Director: Andrew Adamson

Screenwriter: Andrew Adamson, based on the novel by Lloyd Jones

Producers: Andrew Adamson, Robin Scholes, Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech

Executive producers: Tim Coddington, Timothy White

Director of photography: John Toon

Production designer: Grant Major

Costume designer: Ngila Dickson

Music: Harry Gregson-Williams

Editor: Sim Evan-Jones

Sales: UTA (in U.S.), Focus Features International (outside U.S.)

No rating, 132 minutes