I've been wrestling with my feelings on Mr. Pip for a while now, and I'm a still a little uncertain of what to make of it. It's a movie that feels curiously divided in a number of ways – some intentional, some not. It begins as a familiar inspirational drama, then suddenly transforms into something considerably more harrowing. It features a script filled with generic sentiments, but it's shot, paced and acted like a deeply introspective art film. It offers a familiar message about the transcendent power of literature, but also presents more than one scenario in which love for literature leads to devastating consequences. Plus, it kinda-sorta qualifies as a Dickens adaptation. Is it good? Not quite, but it has moments of great power.
The story is set in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea circa 1989. Bougainville is a large mining town, and life has grown tense due to increasingly heated conflicts between the local rebels (who object to the way the mining company has transformed their town) and Papua New Guinea's government. The strangest figure in Bougainville is Tom Watts (Hugh Laurie, House, M.D.), the only white man still living in the region. He strolls through town sporting a red clown nose and pulling a rickshaw bearing his ailing wife Grace (Florence Korokoro). Tom is a genial man, but he keeps to himself and rarely engages in conversation with the townsfolk. One day, he decides to change that.
Bougainville's school has been closed for months due to the military activity in the area, but Tom decides that he's going to start holding classes for the local kids. He tells them that he'll be providing daily readings from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, in addition to providing any cultural context the citizens of Bougainville may need in order to fully appreciate the story. Most of the kids who attend Tom's classes seem to enjoy the tale, but it resonates quite strongly with a young girl name Matilda (Xzannjah Matsi), who finds herself fantasizing about the details of the story between readings.
The opening stretch of Mr. Pip plays like a variation on something like Conrack or Lean on Me, in which a noble teacher uses unconventional methods to reach his students. These scenes are well-played by Laurie (who seems a bit like a sad clown even without the bright red nose), but they're also oh-so-familiar. Director Andrew Adamson (working in a surprisingly low-key mode here after making his name with big-budget franchises like Shrek and The Chronicles of Narnia) gives these scenes more time to breathe than you might expect, and it could be argued that he gives them too much time. You sense that Adamson is attempting to filter the story through a meditative arthouse aesthetic, but there isn't quite enough to meditate on because we've seen this material before.
Still, Matilda's story is considerably more compelling, which is a good thing considering that she eventually replaces Tom as the film's central figure. Great Expectations is the first novel she's encountered, and the story overwhelms her to such a degree that the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur. Humble huts transform into dusty Victorian mansions, and she imagines Bougainville residents sporting 19th century garb. She frequently sees visions of the tale's protagonist Pip (Eka Darville, The Originals), and even engages in conversations with him from time to time. She writes his name on the sand, leading to one of the film's darkest plot developments: military leaders see the name, and begin to suspect that “Pip” is a rebel leader being hidden by the villagers.
There's a pretty sharp tonal shift that occurs around this point, as all of the inspirational teacher movie conventions and earnest inspirational messages get tossed to the wind. The harsh realities of war are setting in, and the violence here is alarmingly visceral given the film's PG-13 rating (not to mention the first half's gentle tone). Adamson and cinematographer John Toon do some exceptional work, delivering a number of bleak, striking images that linger with you long after the credits have rolled.
Mr. Pip is based on a novel by Lloyd Jones, and the film struggles to reconcile the book's complicated mix of ideas. An extended coda tries valiantly to pull all of the pieces together: to re-affirm the inspirational ideas presented early on, to acknowledge the hard truths presented later, to put the finishing touches on the film's own modern day retelling of the Dickens story and to bring emotional closure to a tale that seems designed to defy tidy answers. I found myself genuinely moved on occasion, but just as frequently frustrated by the film's inability to stick the landing (or even find the runway).
There's one clear idea that manages to cut through the fog: the power of imagination is neither simple nor safe. Our imagination can save us. Our imagination can destroy us. Our imagination can serve as a crutch to prevent us from engaging with reality. Our imagination can serve as a valuable tool to help us cope with the unbearable weight of reality. It's an effectively messy idea, but I wish it weren't trapped in a similarly messy film.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Year: 2012