Review: Mr. Pip (TIFF 2012)
PLOT: Bougainville- New Guinea, circa 1989. The island province has been blockaded by the government, with the natives being left to fend for themselves. Enter Mr. Watts (Hugh Laurie); an expatriate Brit, whoís recently come to Bougainville with his sickly native wife, Grace. He offers to reopen the local school, and begins teaching the children- transfixing them with animated readings from Charles Dickensí ďGreat ExpectationĒ. His readings have a profound effect on a local girl, Mathilda (Xzannjah), who imagines the character Pip (Eka Darville) as a local boy, whose story parallels her own.
REVIEW: Sometimes a perfectly decent film plays a festival like TIFF but, for whatever reason, seems to hit the wrong notes with the critics, even if the paying audiences adore it. Such seems to be the case with MR. PIP. Going into the public screening of this towards the end of the festival, I was tempted to skip it as the early trade reviews had been very underwhelming. But- once the film started, I found myself swept up in this occasionally corny, but warm and affecting movie.
Andrew Adamson, who is best known for the first two (good) SHREK films, along with the first two (good) CHRONICLES OF NARNIA movies, makes a bold departure with the small-scaled PIP, although he was able to entice HOUSE-star Hugh Laurie with the lead role, along with his regular composer Harry Gregson-Williams. It crucially sheds a light on the rarely portrayed Bougainville struggle for independence- which, as portrayed in the film, involved the rape and murder of civilians by the Papua New Guinean army ( I must admit that I had never heard of Bougainville before seeing this).
The first chunk of MR. PIP, which is based on the novel by Lloyd Jones, tells the familiar story of a teacher forced to overcome prejudice and ignorance to teach his students about a better, more hopeful life. Laurie cuts an inspiring figure- in a role far removed from HOUSE. He ditches the American accent, the cane, and the toupee for his role as Watts, dubbed Popeye by his students. A troubled man himself, Watts comes to life teaching the kids, and Laurie falls back on some of his own ďA Bit of Fry and LaurieĒ routines when colorfully acting out passages from ĎGreat Expectationsí for his enraptured students.
As good as Laurie is, the film really belongs to Bouganville native Xzannjah as Mathilda. While her experience is probably too harrowing for any of us to truly relate to, her tendency to imagine fictional characters as players in her own life is not. How many of us have, in hard times, taken refuge in the adventures of our favorite film hero? The way Mathilda feels about Pip is kinda the way I feel about James Bond- or the way some of you might feel about your favorite comic book hero. It drives home message that for many people, books, films, or whatever else isnít always just entertainment. For some itís a sanctuary.
The final third of MR. PIP marks a major shift from the previously conventional first half, as it becomes a fairly bloody, harrowing look at the atrocities committed against the Bougainville natives, with an extremely brutal killing and a graphic rape scene obviously stunning some audience members. While unexpectedly violent, it canít be denied that Adamsonís film certainly packs a punch in its later half, and when the film ended, MR. PIP received a heartier applause than Iíve seen at many of the other public screenings of more acclaimed titles.
If MR.PIP gets a mainstream release (itís certainly polished enough), I could see totally see this becoming a word-of-mouth success- assuming itís able to find a decent distributor. While itís perhaps a little corny and simplistic- thatís not necessarily such a bad thing every once and a while, and when youíre telling a story as harrowing as MR. PIPís turns out to be- perhaps thatís necessary.