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Published November 6, 2013

Mr. Pip opens beautifully: a black umbrella contrasts with the snowy ground in a bird’s-eye shot. For those that have looked into the location of the events in Mr. Pip (it’s set in Bougainville against the backdrop of the Bougainville Civil War), this opening seems out of place. However, this opening scene has its place in the film, as we discover later.

I personally have little knowledge of the Bougainville Civil War, but not much is needed to appreciate the film. In summary, after a long history of occupation, uprising and tension, in 1990, Papau New Guinea imposed a blockade on Bougainville (which is geographically located in the Solomon Islands, but isn’t actually part of them).

The film notes that it’s based on true events, but for clarity’s sake: the civil war was a real occurrence, while the actual characters and stories in the film are based on the Lloyd Jones novel of the same name.

You’d be forgiven if you assumed Hugh Laurie’s character Mr Watts was the main character: after all, he is the face of the poster, and the film title seems to reference his character. From a marketing perspective, it makes sense to showcase your most marketable actor – and Hugh Laurie is quite a catch. However, the film’s narrative actually follows a young girl, Matilda, and her frankly excellent actor Xzannjah is done a disservice by not being highlighted.

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The casting process for Matilda was an interesting one: determined to find someone in the Solomon Islands or Bougainville, casting director Pippa Hall and producer Robin Scholes were helped by Bougainville’s only well-known actor, William Takaku, “whose dream it was to have a film made in his homeland.” The film credits contain a special acknowledgement for Takaku, who died before the filming started. 

Matilda’s father has left to seek mining work in Australia, while the blockade imposed means it is almost impossible for Matilda and her mother to leave too. Additionally, the school has been shut down, which is where the story really starts moving. Mr. Watts (the only white person on the island, sometimes referred to as Pop-Eye by the locals) is convinced by the village chief to teach at the small school. While it’s assumed he does teach them other things, he decides to read them Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. As time goes on, even adults begin to come in and listen to the story.

An enjoyable part of the film for me was the fact that a white man was for once the minority in a Western film: the narrative focuses on Matilda, her strongly religious mother Dolores (who distrusts Watts and his teaching of the novel) and fellow students, as well as the civil war. Watts acts more as a catalyst than anything else, which is usually the role inhabited by white women in films (see: any coming-of-age story ever). While he’s obviously a vital part of the film, the character we follow most closely and empathise with the most is Matilda.

As she listens to more of Great Expectations, Matilda begins “meeting” Pip (Eka Darville) in her daydreams, which gives her strength and fuels her imagination further. These dream sequences are beautiful, and portray a version of Great Expectations in which all the characters are black. (I would wholly endorse an actual film featuring the characters we meet in her dreams.)

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On that note, the film doesn’t really focus on race relations: Watts lives apart from the rest of the island with his “mad” wife, Grace. While race relations were indeed an issue on occupied Bougainville, the only time it is really addressed is when a student asks Watts what it’s like to be white: “I don’t know. What’s it like to be black?”. The students say that it’s normal, and they only notice their skin colour when they’re around white people. However, for most of the movie there is a tension between Watts and most of the other islanders: whether because of Grace (who is native to Bougainville) or because of him.

The war is an ever-present backdrop, and this is brought to the fore in two direct conflicts: the first resulting in a burning of their furniture, the second in several deaths. Therefore, those looking for a heartwarming story will get it, but with a side of destruction and sadness. In fact, a sense of melancholy pervades much of the film, in part thanks to the music (Tim Finn and Harry Gregson-Williams), and also due to the events depicted.

I won’t spoil the ending for anyone, but the truth is that this is an excellent film, featuring a woman of colour as the lead. Xzannjah’s acting is superb, portraying Matilda’s journey from a young teenager to adulthood beautifully. Her mother Dolores (played by Xzannjah’s real life mother Healesville Joel) is also spot on: her protectiveness contributes to the problems that arise but she does have Matilda’s best interests at heart. Hugh Laurie is of course spot on, and his character is revealed to be neither saint-like or terrible, but human, like all of the people in the film – the exception being the cruel, nameless soldiers that wreak havoc in their village.

Mr Pip opens tomorrow (Thursday) in Australia.

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