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TIFF '12: 'Mr. Pip' And Literary Escape

Hugh Laurie and Xzannjah in <em>Mr. Pip</em>.
Toronto International Film Festival
Hugh Laurie and Xzannjah in Mr. Pip.

[Monkey See will be at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) through the middle of this week. We'll be bringing you our takes on films both large and small, from people both well-known and not.]

If you go into Mr. Pip not knowing much about what to expect, you may find that it feels like two separate movies. In the first, Thomas Watts (Hugh Laurie) becomes the teacher of a tiny school in Bougainville, a province of Papua New Guinea that's in the midst of a rebellion and has, as a result, been blockaded and largely cut off from the rest of the world as fighting continues. Very short on resources and not actually a teacher — and the subject of much discussion as his circumstances have left him as the only white person in the village — Mr. Watts resolves to introduce his class to the novel Great Expectations. A student named Matilda (Xzannjah) becomes particularly fascinated with it, and with the character of Pip, to the point where she begins to imagine herself meeting and talking to him.

These are gorgeous sequences, by the way, in which Matilda's vision of Dickensian England takes some of its cues from the description in the book and draws some from what she knows herself, so her Pip wears the styles of the time in vibrant, unexpected colors. It's a fine, fine piece of costuming work.

For a while, this is the theme: Matilda's literary escape from her very difficult life, assisted by a teacher who encourages her to read, despite the fact that her mother has little use for novels. It threatens to turn into a by-the-numbers inspirational-teacher film here and there, but pulls back just enough, as Matilda's mother insists that the students learn more than just Dickens — which, if you think about it, is pretty sensible of her.

The second half of the film is much, much darker and more brutal, and involves the ways the realities of war are inevitably visited upon Matilda and her village. Her love of Dickens continues to be a comfort to her, but the book also plays a central tragic role in a military leader's conclusion that the village is harboring rebels. (It's a bit convoluted how that happens precisely, but by then, it doesn't matter all that much.)

Based on Lloyd Jones' 2006 novel Mister Pip, the film is unsparing in its treatment of war as a devastating circumstance for those caught in it. Laurie's performance is strong and understated, and Xzannjah plays Matilda with just the right curiosity and spark.

Having said that, I'm never sure what to say about a film that's as hard to watch as this one is in places. I fear that people who don't know much about it going in will believe it to be an inspirational-teacher movie, and while it is that, it's also a devastating, sometimes agonizing story about war. That's not to say don't go see it; it's to say only this: know what you're in for, because what you're in for is difficult.

Matilda ultimately doesn't treasure her ability to escape into Great Expectations because she longs for its beauty and drama, but because Pip's resilience and, as Mr. Watts explains it, his talent for reinvention gives her some measure of hope. That hope is evident in the story, but so is a great deal of pain.

Mr. Pip currently has no U.S. release date.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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