Movie review: Mr. Pip

By Peter Calder


Andrew Adamson's adaptation of Lloyd Jones' Man Booker Prize-shortlisted 2006 novel arrives in our cinemas on the back of dismissive reviews in the trade press after its first screening at the Toronto Film Festival a year ago.

It has emerged from another few months in the editing suite about 15 minutes shorter, which is doubtless a good thing since it is by no means too short now. It's tighter and clearer, Adamson says, and there have been substantial cuts to two brutal scenes, one of which is jarringly obvious. But, on the strength of the new version, it's hard to agree with the Northern Hemisphere reviewers who found it variously overblown or earnest.

In the new cut, Adamson has nailed the essence of the novel - what he has called in one interview "a story about the power of story" - while coming up with innovative cinematic solutions to the interiority of the novel's first-person point of view.

The director, who also wrote the script, spent his teenage years in Papua New Guinea, and plainly inhaled its essence long ago. It's difficult to imagine that many other filmmakers would have insisted on shooting in the remote and inaccessible places where the real-life events took place, rather than in a stand-in location in Queensland or the Pacific.

Adamson told an industry screening last week that many of the cast members had lived through the war that drives the story's drama; for them it was not acting, but re-enacting.

The story, told by a young teenager called Matilda (Xzannjah), is set on the island of Bougainville, several years before its 1997 autonomy. War rages between Papuan troops (Matilda calls them redskins) and guerrillas (rambos).

Most of the village menfolk, including Matilda's father, have gone, the older ones to seek work in Australia, the youngsters to join the rebels. All the whites have left too, except the eccentric Mr Watts (Laurie), who wears a red nose and drags his silent, demented wife (Korokoro) around in a cart, on which she stands in the shade of a parasol. Watts offers to stand in for the departed teacher, using his sole copy of a singular text: Dickens' Great Expectations. But the success he has in creating an imaginative world by reading and acting out scenes for the village children turns out to have a dark downside: the novel's hero takes on a life of his own, with consequences that no one could have predicted.

Jones' novel is dense with ideas - about cultural colonisation, children's trust in adults, the power of imagination and how we might transcend our pasts - and Adamson's script does a fine job of transferring that nuance to the screen. Most imaginatively, he brings Matilda's thoughts to life with inserts showing scenes from Dickens set in a candy-coloured palm-fringed London (hat tip to production designer Grant Major and Ngila Dickson's wonderful costumes). The lush visuals of cinematographer John Toon are also a major plus. The only things that jar are the lush music and the inexplicable and evidently unconsidered decision to change the title to "Mr." from "Mister".

Laurie's Watts has drawn criticism for being wooden, but I thought it pitch-perfect. He enters the frame sad and distracted, but watching him come to life as he reads is a treat. And as Watts makes his climactic transformation, his character and his belief in the power of the art he loves merge in a kind of transcendence.

But the film belongs to Xzannjah, whose radiant yet unshowy performance nails Matilda dead centre and pulls off the tricky double act of being our eyes on the action and its central character. It's a rare film that sends me straight back to its source book and makes me read it with new eyes. Mr. Pip is one such; it is a joy.

Stars: 4/5
Cast: Hugh Laurie, Xzannjah, Healesville Joel, Kerry Fox
Director: Andrew Adamson
Running time: 115 mins
Rating: M (violence)
Verdict: Smart and cinematically adventurous

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