Featuring: Hugh Laurie, Xzannjah, Eka Darville, Florence Korokoro, Kerry Fox
Director: Andrew Adamson
Writers: Andrew Adamson (screenplay), Lloyd Jones (novel)
Australian release date: November 7
Verdict: Deeply affecting
When civil war disrupts life on Bougainville Island, the last remaining white man steps in to reopen the school. As he reads from Dickens’s Great Expectations, his student, Matilda, imagines herself in scenes from the novel. Papua New Guinean soldiers, on the island to quell rebel activity, believe Pip is a spy, and brutally punish the islanders for withholding information.
There really should be a warning on this film beyond the M classification. You think you are watching a charming colonial coming-of-age story in which a flawed older man passes on wisdom to a bright, receptive and imaginative student. And for a while you are. Mr Pip is actually Tom Watts (Hugh Laurie), standing in as teacher after the government has closed the school in response to rebel actions on Bougainville. He clearly has a mysterious past – the locals regularly witness his strange behaviour of pulling a handcart upon which his beautiful demented wife stands in period finery – but he seems genuine and humble as he begins to read the class Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, a chapter at a time.
He’s a gifted reader and the class is enthralled, none more so than 14-year-old Matilda (Xzannjah), who weaves the story into vivid fantasies that tease out the themes of social mobility, and what it might mean to leave your home and family. These imaginative sequences are beautifully realised and fit seamlessly into the narrative that encompasses Matilda’s backstory and the cultural and historical milieu: her father has been away working in Australia for years; her mother, the local preacher, pits the morality of the Bible against Dickens’s fiction; and the island’s young men are being recruited to the rebel cause.
This is beautiful film making. It’s technically superb: colour, light, and framing are gorgeous, and all is cut together to establish characters with a confident but light touch. You cannot help but be charmed by the villagers, especially as the children’s parents increasingly drop in to give guest lectures to the class, and stay for the next chapter of Great Expectations, until the classroom is packed full of eager listeners.
Logically you expect some conflict to spoil the charming idyll and to challenge young Matilda’s respect for the teacher they occasionally refer to as Mr Pip. There are some minor precursors, and I expected development of the Bible vs. Dickens theme. However, this is not Hollywood, or even fiction, but a story based on true events, and the drama that unfolds is shocking and brutal.
Government soldiers bent on crushing rebel activity arrive and think they have discovered a coded message. They demand more information from the villagers. The swiftness and cruelty of the punishment they mete out comes like a punch in the guts to the viewer. I cannot think of any occasion in the cinema when the mood has changed so abruptly and completely. The events are sensationalised not at all – indeed, they are taken out of shot or focus – but are nonetheless utterly, grimly sickening.
I don’t want to say too much about the powerful depiction of atrocities because the reality ought to unfold to the audience as it does to the victims, as an unimaginable and yet unavoidable truth of war. It’s no good hoping for an I-am-Spartacus resolution, either: such nobility would invite only mass martyrdom.
There’s a long denouement that begins to feel a bit like a television mini-series, or, perhaps more appropriately, like a three-volume novel, but that eventually takes the tale back to its source – Great Expectations – and to a logical and (mostly) satisfying conclusion.
This is a deeply affecting film, beautifully made, with fine, nuanced performances around a dark, dark heart.
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