Hugh Laurie stars in this moving, but not too far reaching, film about Dickens in a far flung place.
Image: Xzannjah in Mr. Pip
The contrast between emotional and material fulfilment sits at the heart Charles Dickens’ thirteenth novel, with coming-of-age effort Great Expectations enduring as a classic of heart-versus-head variety. In author Lloyd Jones’ best-selling 2006 offering Mister Pip – inspired and shaped by, as well as traversing the world created by the Victorian novelist – that conflict is given life-or-death stakes, translating the story to war-torn Bougainville during the early 1990s. It is here that writer/director finds his niche for his sixth feature, a seeming departure for the Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia and Cirque du Soleil: World’s Away helmer. And yet, the marriage of separate maturations – of a protagonist embracing more than the obvious, and a filmmaker tackling more serious content – proves an appropriate fit, and less of a surprise for either.
Mr Pip circles around Mr Watts (Hugh Laurie, TV’s House), a resident of the island setting by virtue of his ailing wife (Florence Korokoro), but one treated with constant trepidation. When his love of literature sparks a desire to teach the local children, the community is wary; however the spirited, headstrong Matilda (newcomer Xzannijah) swiftly warms to his methods. As he reads Dickens’ beloved work aloud, Matilda is transported into the story, dreaming day and night of an existence entwined with the charismatic lead character (Eka Darville, The Sapphires). Her mother (Xzannijah’s real-life mother Healesville Joel) is less impressed with Matilda’s cultural awakening, her fears shared by the nation’s warring factions.
In telling two tales – one within another, and both heavily indebted to their primary source of influence – Adamson takes on an evidently ambitious project. His determination becomes more apparent as the film perseveres, amplifying not by virtue of the scope or interlocking narratives, but by the twists and turns in the factual-based content. Jones' book doesn't shy away from the harsh reality of its time and locale; nor does the film adaptation. Alas, in the latter case, a jarring tonal shift occurs, still underscoring the overall message, but thrusting the emotional impetus in an unexpected – and, at times, manipulatively confronting – direction.
The setting affords other benefits, including an added point of interest in a cinematic market flooded with Great Expectations iterations and derivatives, as well as a picturesque backdrop. Further, the thread of intellect and dedication as a means of overcoming or coping with obstacles – along with ample lashings of hope and heart – is an apt fit for the context. Again, Adamson makes the most of everything at his disposal, earnestly amplifying the unique aspects of his approach, allowing his cinematographer John Toon (Sunshine Cleaning) to lovingly lens even the most bloody of scenes, and never losing sight of the literary connection. At times, each is played too heavy-handedly; however the distinctive combination of the magical and the brutal earns a reaction.
Where the execution and approach sometimes waver, the performances fill in the gaps – some as expected, others illuminating in their initial film turns. Laurie's affable charm has been well established over years in comedic and then dramatic roles, and again he does what he does best – albeit in a much more subdued mode of operation. Debutant Xzannijah is a worthy co-player, growing into her role in later scenes, even as the material takes its darker turn. Their stirring interplay is the highlight of a film both too apparent and too broad-reaching, but always moving and affectionate.
Director: Andrew Adamson
Papua New Guinea / Australia / New Zealand, 2012, 130 mins
Release date: November 7