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.
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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.