Whenever I hear that a film that is coming out has been based on a novel, I am usually prepared to just like it, at best. Movies are rarely as good as the book, and so I automatically go in with slightly lowered expectations as a result. Even – as in this case – when it’s based on a book I’ve not heard of before, let alone read. Now, one mark of a really good film is when it affects you so powerfully that before the end credits roll, you already know that you want to pick up a copy and devour that source material, and Mr. Pip is absolutely one of those movies for me. In fact, it not only made me want to pick up the book by Lloyd Jones, but it also made me realize that I need to finally read Great Expectations very soon, as well, and how often is a film so good that it makes you need to read TWO books?
I chose to add this film to my final roster this year in part because the description intrigued me, but it was mostly due to the fact that Hugh Laurie had been cast as the male lead. I don’t know what it is about that man, but I just find him to be unendingly and wonderfully watchable. I can’t take my eyes off him when he’s on screen, and I actively miss him when he’s not. His performances never fail to elicit some form of emotional response, and I was excited to get into the theatre and see what he would do with this film based on a true story I knew nothing about. I hoped, of course, that he would be there for the screening, but either way, I was very excited just to be there. And that was when I had absolutely no idea upon which kind of a journey I was about to embark.
There is no way to adequately describe this film – this story – with words alone. It’s not even about spoilers – this one can’t be spoiled. It’s so much more than a film, or a story. It’s an experience. It’s a journey. It’ll change the way you see the world. And it’ll change you. I don’t even think I can describe the plot synopsis with any degree of accuracy, because no matter what I say, this story is more. It’s one that needed to be told, and it’s one that everyone needs to experience. It’s a historical account, but it’s not history. It’s based on a true story, but it celebrates the power of faith, imagination and creativity.
In its most simplistic form, Mr. Pip is about the last white man left on an island in the province of Bougainville and one of his students, Matilda (Xzannjah), and the relationship that forms between them based on their mutual love of Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations. Watts is the only non-native of the island who refuses to leave before a standoff between the military and rebels protesting the open copper mine closes off the island from the outside world. He introduces his students – and much of the town – to the character of Pip by reading aloud from the novel each day in class. At the same time, the things being learned from the book don’t always jive with the religious teachings Matidla’s mother, Delores (Healesville Joel), would prefer everyone be holding on to, particularly in this time of war. She believes that their faith is one thing that can’t be taken from them, and therefore it holds far more value to the spirit of her people than any other character in any other book. Matilda, however, has imagined herself in a close friendship with the fictional Pip, and when his existence takes on a very real form to the Redskin army sent to stop the rebels and take whatever they want from the villagers, the lines between fact and fiction become dangerously blurred.
Don’t even get me started on the other layers of this film. On how the comparison between Pip just being a character in a story is played alongside the Bible, or on the parallels Matilda draws between Pip’s made-believe story and the very real horrors happening in her own life. Or on how the strength of a people can overcome bullets, machetes, rape and torture, even when the heart of their land has been cut out. Even now, after the events of the book and the film have taken place, their story is still unfolding. And beautiful Bougainville is still breathing.
I honestly can not say enough about this film. It’s beautifully shot, the island landscapes providing a lush background to the horror and bloodshed that come to sully them. Hugh Laurie is stunning in the role of Watts – his humour, intelligence, humility, empathy and sacrifice mirror those of the villagers surrounding him. Delores and Matilda are real-life mother and daughter, and I can imagine no better pair to bring these characters to life than Xzannjah and Joel. Finally, for their part, the people of Bougainville are portrayed as the very epitome of strength and subservience, of innocence and darkness, of beauty and fear, and – ultimately – of faith, courage and what it means to be a gentleman.
Mr. Pip is screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, September 14th at 2:45pm.