- Mr. Pip directed by Andrew Adamson
“Imagine” is the key message in the film Mr. Pip, which brings Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations into a Bougainville village classroom amid the turmoil of civil war and trade blockades after the Bougainville Copper Mine crisis. In the film, set in the 1980s, when the rebels were fighting Papua New Guinea forces known as the Redskins to regain control of the island of Bougainville, the village school reopens with the one European on the island, Mr Watts, also known as Mr Pip, leading the few remaining students through a reading of Great Expectations each day. In a period of disruptions and disjunctions, “Mr Dickens” becomes a key figure for the students as they seek to imagine life in nineteenth-century England, half a world away. “Fiction can be dangerous in times of war,” as the film’s publicity slogan underlines.
The plot of Mr. Pip, which is based on Lloyd Jones’s Booker Prize–listed novel of the same name, explores the expectations of one student in [End Page 579] particular, Matilda, as she tries to imagine the life of Mr Pip in England a century before and is building her own expectations of a life beyond her island. Through their classes, the students get a glimpse of Mr Pip’s experiences growing up a hundred years earlier, exploring his expectations for his life, moving from an English village forge, and becoming apprenticed to a lawyer in London. So Matilda in Bougainville in the 1980s dreams of a life far away from her village, perhaps with her father in Australia. Mr Watts, the schoolteacher, encourages her imagination (and that of the other pupils), not the least to understand his own relationship with a terminally ill village woman whom he met while she was studying dentistry in New Zealand and who was the one who drew him to Bougainville. Each day he pulls his wife, standing on a wooden carriage, well dressed, through the village, until she becomes too sick and eventually dies, leaving unfulfilled her hopes of bringing her dentistry skills to the village. As Mr Watts becomes more bereft, he takes on the image of Mr Pip in the students’ eyes, and the combined image allows Matilda and the other pupils to reach beyond the crisis that surrounds them. Seeing Bougainville through the eyes of Matilda and the other students enables us to share the many interwoven complexities of life during the crisis.
The rebels want to seek out this strange white man (Mr Watts/Mr Pip/Mr Dickens), but when none of the village people can produce him or the book the students are talking about, the rebels torch all their possessions and their houses, with the perverse exception of Mr Watts’s. The Redskins continue to pursue this complicated stranger until he is caught, killed, horribly mutilated by machete, and bodily fed to pigs. Matilda’s subsequent escape encompasses many of her imagined expectations.
The cast of the film is impressively drawn from Bougainville Islanders, while Mr Pip is portrayed by the wellknown British actor Hugh Laurie. Matilda, the fourteen-year-old student played with extraordinary expertise by newcomer Xzannjah, is supported by her mother and other young people cast in the schoolroom. The logistics of filming in a Bougainville village with an untrained cast posed many challenges for the director, Andrew Adamson, who was able to draw on his own life as a youngster growing up in Papua New Guinea. He based the film crew aboard a ship anchored in the bay off the village. Lloyd Jones told the audience at the initial release of the film that he was happy with the way the director of the film had adapted the ideas from his awardwinning novel.
The personae, mainly Bougainvilleans, play out complex layers of confrontations between the murky morality of Dickens’s book (Great Expectations) and the locally far more familiar morality of THE book (the Bible). The characters of Matilda...