The man sure has a strange approach to work. Which successful British star goes to do a film in New Zealand after gaining immense success in Hollywood? Hugh Laurie, that’s who. Some 22 odd years ago when Laurie starred in a British-Czech film A Pin For The Butterfly (1994), which told the story of a young girl growing up amidst the horror of a Stalinist Czechoslovakia, one would have thought it was to pay the bills that he picks up small gigs. But what makes him take up a film like Mr. Pip in 2012, post his Himalayan success with House MD?
A constant itch to do something new, something different, something unusual I guess. Laurie is a self-confessed malcontent. He is always trying to do the thing he is not doing. That explains his wide range of work across creative medium, platforms and geographies, pushing the limits of popular, commercial and critical acceptance, challenging the stereotypes of what a successful star can or cannot do. So my man does obscure work, not very successful in the commercial sense, neither popular among the critics, but they are interesting and I always learn something from his work. Mr. Pip (2012) is yet another on that list.
Based upon a novel by the same title by Llyod Jones, written and directed by Andrew Adamson (of animation blockbuster Shrek and Shrek 2 fame), the film is set during the time of Bougainville Civil War. The story revolves around the life of a young girl Matilda (Xzannjah Matsi) raised by her mother, growing up with the daily realities of mass murder and violence with nothing but her imagination to help her survive the horror, and Mr Thomas Watts (Hugh Laurie) the only white person in Bougainville whose story telling fuels Matilda’s imaginations.
Bougainville is hit by the civil war of independence between local rebels and Royal Papua New Guinea Army. The copper mines are shut down and a blockade is imposed by government to weaken the rebels, the village is running out of basic requirements like fuel and medicines, most young boys and men have left the province to take up arms and join the rebel group into hiding, local schools are shut down or destroyed. The elderly, girls and women are left with no purpose but to wait for the dead bodies of their sons killed by the Army to arrive. The large presence of white Australians who entered the province in search of Copper mines, the main reason behind the armed rebellion, is missing because all of them have left the conflict zone. All except one, Mr. Watts (Laurie) who lives in a house with a native Bougainville woman whom everybody assumes to be his wife. She doesn’t speak, nor does she laugh or cry. Mr Watts doesn’t laugh or cry either but every once in a while, he takes her around the village in a wooden carriage, pretending to be a red nosed clown with the saddest look in his eyes, while she stands behind him holding an umbrella.
The villagers do not understand who Mr Watts is, why he still lives in this violent zone and why the couple is so dysfunctional. These questions are later answered but in all honesty this is not a great script or direction, so hardly any justice is done to the characters or the story arcs.
Suddenly, one day Mr. Watts decides to reopen the abandoned school. Children and their mothers gather and he starts narrating them the Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Although, when Mr Watts first told them he was going to introduce the children to Mr. Charles Dickens, they much rather hoped this new Mr. Dickens would bring some kerosene, beer and malaria tablets to the village, and also fix the generator. Nonetheless, when he started narrating Great Expectations children were captivated by Mr. Pip’s life. Among them Matilda was the most influenced, as she began to imagine a world of her own in the Victorian London where she met her very own Pip and fell in love.
When a figment of her harmless imagination fell upon the hands of violent enraged Army tragic consequences ensued. Yet through all the horrors and violence the power of storytelling, power of imagination stayed with her and helped her survive. As Mr Watts said, “our losses remind ourselves of the things we can never lose, our minds, our imagination. Close your eyes and say your name. Nobody would ever take your name in your voice, that is a power that belongs to you and nobody can take it away from you.”
Like I said before, it isn’t a great script and there are several lost opportunities. The characters should have had more meat. This is a film made by a white man, featuring just one white character in an otherwise all black cast and raises questions like “What is it like to be white? What it is like to be white among blacks? And black among whites? Can a poor person be a gentleman” but doesn’t answer any of them.
Still, I learned about the Bougainville civil war, the amazing natural beauty that Papua New Guinea is, the role of copper mines in its history and politics, the consequences of colonisation in the Oceania, the legend of Queen of Sheba, and Great Expectations. I learned about the indigenous lives of people of Bougainville who had their “fish, chicken, pigs, fruits and faith.” Matilda’s mother teaches the value of Bible in the local Church and insists she only speaks in English because the missionaries told them God said “Let there be light.”
Laurie’s performance was widely appreciated by the critiques and he also won New Zealand’s top acting award. So did Xzannjah Matsi who is a native of Papua New Guinea and this was her first film acting job. I will recommend the film to crazy buffs who watch weird things just out of curiosity. Not to those who watch films for entertainment.
Other things I learned following Laurie’s work are, Stalinism (from A Pin For The Butterfly), and Bossanova (from Girl From Rio), discovered a love for Jazz music and PG Wodehouse. Then there are things I learn from watching House MD which would take about 2 volumes. I will share these on my blog gradually.