Mr. Pip

This gimmicky story set during Papua New Guinea's civil war reaches for emotional effect in a fatally hamfisted fashion.

Mr. Watts - Hugh Laurie
Matilda - Xzannjah
Dolores - Healesville Joel
Pip - Eka Darville
Mrs. Watts - Kerry Fox
Grace Watts - Florence Korokoro

Like fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson, Andrew Adamson has followed a run of large-scale fantasy entertainments (two “Shreks,” two “Narnias”) by adapting an inspirational-uplift literary novel. “Mr. Pip,” a lower profile adaptation of a less famous book, doesn’t carry the same risks as “The Lovely Bones” did, but this gimmicky story set during Papua New Guinea’s civil war is similarly overblown, reaching for emotional effect in a fatally hamfisted fashion. The film leans on a Dickens masterpiece, and so may have its proponents, but most filmgoers will be left wondering what the fuss is about.

On the isle of Bougainville, circa 1990, protests over copper mining and its profits have led to war between mainland Papuan troops and local rebels hiding in the mountains. Villages like the one in which teenage Matilda (Xzannjah) lives have lost many of their citizens — her father now works in Australia, and boys keep running off or being taken away to join the guerrilla forces.

Popular on Variety

The lone white man left is Mr. Watts (Hugh Laurie), an eccentric figure known for wearing a clown nose as he pulls his apparently mad native wife (Florence Korokoro) grandly around in a shaded cart. When he offers to serve as a replacement for the teacher whose evacuation had shuttered the school months ago, adults as well as children are dubious but curious. He disarms the kids, primarily by leaning on “Great Expectations” as a text to read aloud and discuss.

Matilda finds that story so compelling that she thinks about its characters incessantly, imagining them on her own terms, as blacks in fanciful quasi-Victorian dress, in sequences that rep the script’s major (though not very effective) divergence from Lloyd Jones’ novel. But her fascination with Dickens’ protagonist Pip creates a misunderstanding among soldiers, who think the villagers are hiding a rebel fugitive. This has fateful consequences for her devout, narrow-minded mother (Healesville Joel), Mr. Watts, and everyone else caught between the warring factions.

Jones’ well-crafted but pat fiction is at heart a self-congratulatory story about the magic of storytelling, which uses slavish homage to a classic as a conceptual crutch. Uncomfortably, it also features a lone, seemingly hopeless white man who sacrifices on behalf of pidgin-speaking natives.

Still, the source material could have made for a better film. “Mr. Pip” doesn’t start going seriously awry until its second half, when things get more eventful in ways that are compacted from the novel yet seem more disconnected, with epilogues plodding several years forward. Rather than resonating as epic and touching, however, these scenes muddle the point, and become tedious.

While Laurie has his moments, delivering a big, awkward emotional speech at one point, and a shorter comic sequence in which Watts hammily portrays Dickens’ characters at another, he nevertheless can’t seem to get a hold on the role, in a vague, walk-through performance that leaves open the question of whether the thesp can translate his smallscreen triumph in “House” to bigscreen stardom. The 15-year-old Xzannjah lacks expressiveness; other thesps are just adequate in one-note roles.

John Toon’s handsome location lensing highlights a glossy package coated in orchestral syrup.

Mr. Pip

New Zealand

Production: An Olympus Pictures, New Zealand Film Commission, NZ on Air and Daydream Prods. presentation in association with Eyeworks Film of a Strange Weather production. (International sales: Focus Features, Los Angeles.) Produced by Andrew Adamson, Robin Scholes, Leslie Urdang, Sean Vanech. Executive producers, Tim Coddington, Timothy White, Dan Revers, James Dean, Julie Christie. Co-producers, Geoff Linville, Lloyd Jones. Directed by Andrew Adamson. Screenplay, Adamson, based on the novel by Lloyd Jones.

Crew: Camera (color), John Toon; editor, Sim Evan-Jones; music, Tim Finn, Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Grant Major; supervising art director, Jill Cormack; set decorator, Megan Vertelle; costume designer, Ngila Dickson; sound, Mike Westgate, Fred Enholmer; re-recording mixers, Mike Hedges, Gilbert Lake; sound designer, Tim Prebble; assistant director, Simon Ambridge; casting, Nikki Barrett. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 10, 2012. Running time: 130 MIN.

Cast: Mr. Watts - Hugh Laurie
Matilda - Xzannjah
Dolores - Healesville Joel
Pip - Eka Darville
Mrs. Watts - Kerry Fox
Grace Watts - Florence Korokoro(English, Nasoi dialogue)

More Scene

  • Sean Penn CORE Gala

    Sean Penn Offers to Take Selfies in Exchange for $5,000 Donations to Disaster Relief

    A decade after the catastrophic 7.0 Haiti earthquake left between 50,000 and 100,000 dead and nearly a million people displaced, Sean Penn hosted the 10th anniversary CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort) gala, raising funds for international disaster relief at the Wiltern Theatre on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. “We’re not here tonight because we want [...]

  • Allison Janney Viola Davis

    Viola Davis & Allison Janney React to Lack of Diversity in 2020 Oscar Nominations

    Monday morning’s Oscar nominations rebooted the #OscarsSoWhite conversation, reigniting discussion about representation after women were shut out of the directing category and only one person of color — Cynthia Erivo — was nominated in the acting categories. At the premiere of Amazon Original’s “Troop Zero” at The Grove in Los Angeles on Monday evening, the [...]

  • Star Trek Picard Premiere

    'Picard' Stars Reveal Which 'Star Trek' Character They Would Get Drunk With

    The cast and creators of “Star Trek: Picard” turned out for the show’s premiere at the ArcLight Cinerama Dome on Monday night. In the spirit of the festive atmosphere of the night, Variety asked them which “Star Trek” character, past or present, they’d most like to pound a few Romulan ales with at the local [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Laura Dern

    Inside the 2020 Critics' Choice Awards: What You Didn't See on TV

    ‘Twas the night before Oscar nominations and all through the ballroom, the Barker Hanger was buzzing as critics mixed and mingled with A-listers inside the 25th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards on Sunday night. Life Achievement winner Eddie Murphy, #SeeHer honoree Kristen Bell, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Bong Joon Ho were among the big names who played [...]

  • Taye Diggs Critics Choice

    Critics' Choice Awards: The Complete Winners List

    The 25th annual Critics’ Choice Awards gala, hosted by Taye Diggs, was broadcast live on The CW on Sunday night. It was a good night for both Netflix and HBO, with the studios taking home trophies for movies and shows like “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” “When They See Us,” “Watchmen” and “Succession.” “Once Upon a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content