This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 29th September 2013
New Zealand author Lloyd Jones’ bestselling, Man Booker-nominated novel finally gets the big screen treatment after seven years in the dedicated hands of Narnia’s Andrew Adamson.
A tale of many layers, Mr Pip is set in Bougainville in the 1990s, when the Papua New Guinean island was being plundered by Australian mining companies and its people terrorised by civil war. Mr Watts (Hugh Laurie) is the last white man in the village, known as Popeye by the local children to whom he becomes a self-appointed teacher when there is no one else to help. In his creased cream suit and sweaty brow, the well-meaning Watts explains he is “neither wise nor a teacher” but attempts to educate his eager audience on Charles Dickens’ classic “Great Expectations”. Young Matilda – named by the Australians at the mine where her absent father works – is enchanted by the tale of Pip, who becomes less fictional and more inspirational to her as time passes.
Adamson adapted and directed this tale in what became a complex task of balancing the various tones of its multi-threaded narrative. Following the film’s initial outing at the Toronto film festival last year, he embraced the critical feedback and recrafted the resulting “finished film”.
His trademark dedication has paid off. The rendering of Matilda’s occasional reveries (stunning costumes and set pieces which are simultaneously at odds with and yet strange and lovely in a pacific island context) against a story of brutal bloodshed is well-handled, producing shocking and moving moments. Given the painful subject matter, the use of a predominantly novice cast is impressive, with special mention to local girl Xzannjah whose story (as Matilda) we follow.
The filmmakers insisted that this is the local people’s story, which had to be told by them, in their home (early production discussions had mooted Australia or the Solomon Islands as locations). As a result, mixing the naturally beautiful light and scenery with an intoxicating soundtrack, Mr Pip is powerful and touching.