DIRECTOR: Andrew Adamson

CAST: Hugh Laurie, Xzannjah, Healesville Joel, Eka Darville, Kerry Fox


RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

RATING: ****

HAUNTING, lyrical and brutal, Mr Pip is an imaginative but sobering lesson on the power of the written word. It deals with the way literature can provide solace and a means of escape in the worst of times and how books can teach us how to deal with our reality.

It also shows us how ignorant people can wholly misinterpret things when they don’t have the education and imagination of a life graced by literature.

Set on Bougainville Island, the drama gives us a glimpse into the civil war of the early 1990s in Papa New Guinea, not a place we know a lot about.

Based on Lloyd Jones’s novel (shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize in 2007), it tells the story of a young girl who becomes transfixed by the story of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. The story starts with the only white man on the island reading the story to the abandoned schoolchildren.

Mr Watts (Laurie, pictured) is a complicated, sad man with a seemingly mysterious past – a very different person to the villagers. Hugh Laurie goes for an understated performance, creating a quietly inspiring character, while Xzannjah is a natural – creating a curious and switched-on Mathilda.

Young Mathilda (Xzannjah) finds herself empathising with the Pip character and as life around her turns miserable and scary, she escapes into the story as a way to cope. Her strict, conservatively Christian mother Dolores Naimo (Joel) is troubled by the influence Mr Watts, the man reading the story, exerts on the village children, and especially her daughter, but there are bigger problems to contend with.

The Redskins – an army sent to destroy local rebels – comes looking for collaborators and insurgents, and Mr Watts is implicated through no fault of his own.

Director Andrew Adamson mixes the book’s magical realism with the reality of a people in the throes of a nasty and violent civil war. Audiences used to the way films from Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt use the technique will just go with the flow, but this would be quite a jolt for audiences steeped in a clear delineation between the magic of Disney films and the “reality” created by Hollywood for the big screen.

Mathilda stepping into the story is handled matter of fact, but it is the way Dickens’s story inveigles itself into reality that is more important, and ultimately emotionally disturbing.

The film reminds us we can find inspiration in the unlikeliest places, but the person who doesn’t learn to read themselves into a story is the poorer for it.

If you liked The Book Thief, you will like this.