Mr Pip: and some things and people who give me the pip

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are the rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.

I went to see Mr Pip last night. I checked out several reviews before I went and they were not encouraging. But I liked the sound of the story and wanted to go to a movie and so there I was. I recommend it – though readers are warned that I am prone to strong views when seeing movies – particularly when I see them on my own which I did with this one.

It’s a film made in New Zealand and I have to say that based on a number of New Zealand films I’ve seen – most particularly Once were Warriors and In my Father’s Den these New Zealanders seem to be much better than us at making serious movies lately. Ours are so timid by comparison – so often focused on fairly cute comedies of manners – like Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding and usually bathed in the treacle of our national preoccupation with asking “what does it mean to be Australian?” – sorry I nearly lost consciousness just contemplating that last question. Such an interesting one. Note: Henry Lawson and cousin Banjo were no doubt good guys, but can we please move on?

Anyway perhaps because it has no great stereotype of itself as Australia does, New Zealand movies seem much more at home with big serious things. Mr Pip is an epic story – set in civil war torn Bougainville. The clapped out Mr Pip is the only white person left on a small island. With the local school closed down owing to the troubles, he becomes the teacher. His lessons consist or reading from Dickens Great Expectations. Matilda, a charismatic 14 year old girl in the class, is transported by this story.

We only have fragments of the characters and their back stories, but it’s fairly clear that the plot of Great Expectations is a motif for the stories of the people in the movie.  Mr Pip says that it changed his life. And of course Great Expectations is about someone who is a migrant from a lower to an upper class world. Everything remains strange to Pip and the great achievement to the film is it’s capturing the strangeness of life as it is, and as it should be.

The one quote from Dickens’ book which figures in any important way is the one I have excerpted above. It speaks for itself, and for the film. It’s of a piece with this line from CS Lewis: “Literature . . . irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become”. Strange things happen all the time and the strangest are resolved in some sense by the end of the movie, but not really in a way that dissipates the strangeness as they might if they were the tying up of the loose ends at the end of a whodunit. 

In addition to this grand theme, played out on an epic scale, the film avoids the clichés which, in Australian films are as obligatory as acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet their elders past and present. The natives are not noble savages – just people who are strange, but no stranger than anyone else.

Meanwhile Sandra Hall who gave it three and a half stars sums it up by saying “It’s not a perfect film but it’s not often you get one that sings literature’s praises so eloquently, and that makes up for a lot.”  Well actually it didn’t occur to me that it was “singing literature’s praises” which sounds pretty precious to me.  It was imagining and presenting a big story. That story, it seemed to me was about the strangeness of life and the chief way in which this was presented was via the various characters necessarily “reinventing themselves” as we say these days, as they migrated into, and had to make homes in new worlds. Mr Pip on the island, Matilda who had to get off the island and Pip from Great Expectations who becomes a gentleman – as best he can.

I have no objections to Jake Wilson’s much less pretentious summing up other than the ‘mark’ he gave it (two and a half stars):

Like many films based on modern ”literary” novels, Mr Pip is a puzzle with a significant number of pieces missing. But though largely incoherent, it’s also strangely moving.


Adamson aspires to the sweep of a director like David Lean, favouring broad, obviously cued emotional effects. Yet he’s also willing to acknowledge the unbridgeable gap between one person’s experience and another’s.

I would say however that life is ‘incoherent’ – and also, one hopes, strangely moving.

Anyway, I’ll leave it there, except to say that, as I sat through the movie I gradually became increasingly incensed at the dreadful review given it by the ditzy Margaret and her patronising sidekick David who almost invariably expresses his opinions as simple facts. Can we please get these people off our airwaves?

DAVID: This adaptation of a novel by Lloyd Jones [is] a very peculiar affair, and a rather indigestible mixture of styles.

Much of it seems aiming to be rather quaint, as the seriously odd Mr. Watts takes over the school and charms everyone. Then, when the bad guys – the military – mistakenly think the character of Mr. Pip is real and a rebel to boot, things get out of hand and, at least by implication, unsettlingly violent. The last part of the film, involving Kerry Fox in London, goes off in yet another direction.

The clashing moods are jarring and tend to reduce the impact of young Xzannjah’s winningly unaffected performance as Matilda. The location photography is fine.


MARGARET: Yes, I think it’s one of the advantages of the film that he chose to shoot it on Bougainville so in the locations where there story is meant to have taken place.

DAVID: It certainly looks authentic.

MARGARET: Yes. I don’t imagine that was particularly easy.

DAVID: Logistics would have been difficult.

MARGARET: Yes. Locations are always hard.


MARGARET: I agree with you, I think young Xzannjah, however you pronounce her names with all those xes and zeds in it, is terrific.

DAVID: She’s very good, very natural.

MARGARET: Yes. But there are things in it – this guy walking through this village with a red nose dragging his wife in a cart.

DAVID: What was that all about?

MARGARET: I do not know and it’s so odd and maybe in the book that is contextualised but it’s not at all in the film and so you go where’s this coming from? Similarly, there are plot points in the film, the explanation of Mr Pip on the beach. It’s a very odd film.

DAVID: All those strange scenes in fancy dress. I mean her imagining of that.

MARGARET: That sits rather oddly too.

DAVID: Uneasily, yes. I think so.

MARGARET: Look, a well-intentioned effort. I’m giving it three stars.

DAVID: I’m giving it two and a half.

Anyway, I’m not suggesting that my review is particularly ‘objective’ whatever that might mean for an exercise like this. I thought the film was the real deal – a morally serious and competent engagement with its subject.

PS: Here’s a good review of the movie by a New Zealand reviewer.



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28 Responses to Mr Pip: and some things and people who give me the pip

  1. Mr Denmore says:

    As a New Zealander, I’m always struck by the self-mythologising of Australians in film, books and culture generally. It seems a minor derivative of American exceptionalism and it seems to have become more consciously strident since Howard. A case in point is the chest-beating over ‘mateship’ and the self-congratulatory tone of your Anzac ceremonies, which are in stark contrast to the more sombre Kiwi version.

    New Zealanders really aren’t interest in the ‘grand narrative’ of an imported colonial culture that has only been here for five minutes anyway. This isn’t to completely diss Australian culture. But you were a much more attractive people when you were in your self-deprecatory, laconic and understated mode. Now, that’s all part of the schtick. You’re in love with your own invented tradition. And that explains Abbott. It’s blokey and chauvinistic. It’s always been that way. But it used to be modestly worn. Now it’s worn with pride. And there’s your downfall.

    It’s why your art is provincial and it’s why your politics is so self aggrandising. And it’s why your movies suck.

    • Michael says:

      Well said. I find it interesting that Peter Jackson has made world class movies in NZ without resorting to self conscious introspection. Australia I’m afraid hasn’t managed that since the first Mad Max film. Not to say that there hasn’t been any well crafted watchable films – just none that have much relevance for the rest of the world.

  2. Mr Denmore says:

    By the way, apologies for being so harsh. But if you’re brother can’t tell you that you’ve lost your way, who can?

    • derrida derider says:

      No apologies needed. As an older Aussie who can remember when we were indeed more “self-deprecatory, laconic and understated” I reckon you’re basically right. Though the Anzac religion (that is what it is) has been there for many years – promulgated by the RSL and enforced for social control reasons by conservative interests. Even when young I thought it ridiculous and harmful.

      But it’s strange how our films have become seriously sucky but other art and entertainment forms not so much. Even stranger is the way a closely related form – TV shows – has become much better on average. We certainly do them now a lot better than the Kiwi ones I’ve seen.

      Our literature of course is still the same as most country’s – lots of near-unreadable dross punctuated by the odd terrific read and the even odder genuine masterpiece.

  3. Stephen Hill says:

    While I’d love to congratulate the New Zealand film industry on some excellent works in the last few years – and add Jane Campions “Top of the Lake” being close to the best television I have seen this year I think you’re diagnosing Australian culture in rather reductionist terms. I’d argue that over the last few years there has been a broadening of content matter in Australian film – with more indigenous content – Ivan Sen’s “Mystery Road” a fine recent example, but also films with a greater international focus – “The Rocket” set in Laos, Cate Shortland’s excellent adaptation of the middle story in Rachel Seiffert’s “The Dark Room” “Lore” – set in post WWII Germany. In fact even among the more commercial films that were lucky enough to get screenings in the outer suburban metro-plexes – “The Sapphires”, “Wish You Were Here” there is a much less parochial view of the world.

    In fact while I would agree with you in the chauvinism and petty-mindedness of the Abbott government (don’t you philosophy departments dare get an ARC grant studying Kant or Hegel), even in regards to this government while they do have the rhetoric “turn the boats around” to appeal to an uneducated parochialism at the same time in contrast to the last Howard government there is a definite recognition that the country needs to more maturely interact with the rest of the world. Yes this is sort of two-faced, and as we are starting to see with Richard Marles having some fun at the Liberal’s expense about the ineffective nature of megaphone diplomacy, it will be interesting to see as the government moves more into the mode of governing whether the Abbott government will jettison some of the silly ideas sprouted before the election and implement a more nuanced approach (unfortunate probably while shouting out populist mantras to disguise their retreat from the unreality of some of their professed positions). I’d suggest while it might be silly season for a while, what the government will do will be a little different to what it says – as Abbott is not resistant to multi-culturalism in the way John Howard was and I think Abbott realises the country is a lot less culturally homogeneous to when Howard first took office.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Hmm, well associating it with the party politics of the day seems pretty wide of the mark to me – at least as far as the issues I was raising. I doubt there are many Australian film makers who have sought to capture or propagate John Howard’s vision of Australian mateship.

    I had a long conversation with a Radio National presenter the other day and, though we had a great conversation and agreed about many things, there was a complete disconnect when I intimated the views I have above – my irritation with the obsession with What it Means to be Australian. They couldn’t really fathom why I had a problem with that preoccupation.

    Likewise I feel the same way about The Monthly and Quarterly Essay. They’re so provincial, so relentless in their focus on Australia. At least there I know why – they think that commercially they can’t get away with anything else because there’s such a wealth of broader stuff on the net.

    In any event, none of this has anything to do with Tony Abbott or John Howard.

    • “What it Means to be Australian” provides hours of entertainment( just like the Christmas holiday newspapers lists of the ’11 greatest…cricket players of all time’)… it sells, provides hours of mindless fun.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Agreed, hours of mindless fun. It’s why I’ve always preferred the conversations about sport – because everyone knows the interest is arbitrary. It comes without affectation or pretension. Not so discussions about what it means to be Australian which are had with the most desperate seriousness but which almost invariably amount to nothing.

        • personally , a image of what it can, sort of, mean to be ‘Australian’ is The quality of sprawl ( the ability to be able to say “near enough”):

          it’s Beatrice Miles going twelve hundred ditto in a taxi,
          No Lewd Advances, no Hitting Animals, no Speeding,
          on the proceeds of her two-bob-a-sonnet Shakespeare readings.
          An image of my country. And would thatit were more so.

          No, sprawl is full gloss murals on a council-house wall.
          Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
          Reprimanded and dismissed,
          it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
          of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
          Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
          And thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.

    • Patrick says:

      This site really needs a “+1” facility. Jacques?? Ken??

  5. Stephen Hill says:

    Agree Nicholas. I hope I didn’t derail the thread, was sort of replying to Mr Denmore’s assumption of parochialism in Australian films – I think they have become a lot less so over the last few years. I just don’t see this mythological Australianness pervading in most of our cultural product – I think there have been a lot more sophisticated in their approach in recent releases. I guess I was just arguing against the perception that as a country we are moving towards mirroring a national mythology. In the second paragraph it probably spilled into commentary on the worst subsidised theatre which is Parliament House and I wonder how much of that is more the symptom of a highly concentrated media (where complex issues debated become broadcast in such narrow terms) anyway rather than any local phenomena.

    From limited information I am sure you are correct about the seriousness of the film, the novel is regarded as one of the more important Australasian texts – winning the Book and Commonwealth Book Prize. The only reason I haven’t seen the film is that I would rather read the book first, which is what I try to do wherever it is possible.


  6. Stephen Hill says:

    That should be Booker Prize not Book Prize, I am sure there are thousands of book prizes if I was to add them all up from around the world,

  7. ChrisB says:

    “these New Zealanders seem to be much better than us at making serious movies lately. Ours are so timid by comparison – so often focused on fairly cute comedies of manners – like Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding”
    What the fuck do you mean, lately?
    Priscilla, 1994;
    Muriel’s wedding, 1994.
    What have you done for me over the past nineteen years?

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Fair cop.

      I’ve seen plenty of Oz movies since. And a few of them have been quite good. Perhaps I’m forgetting some, but my impressions still hold.

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    In an act of synchronicity I just read Julia Baird’s tweet which mentioned the quote I was trying to find when I was writing this post.

    @bairdjulia: The duty of an artist is “to wield his pen like an ice pick, to smash the frozen sea inside us.” Franz Kafka

  9. “If you are casually chatting with somebody in a bar and you ask them, ‘what did you think about film X, and they answer that question by spending a hour talking about themselves, then you have met a critic.” Andrew Denton

  10. Mike Pepperday says:

    I agree with Mr Denmore. I was thinking Bliss was an exception but I checked and it was 1985.

    Political style and movies would both reflect the same cultural phenomena. “the worst subsidised theatre which is Parliament House” is well said except that we should make it “lower house,” thereby excluding the Senate and including most of the states.

  11. murph the surf. says:

    John Pilger can be relied on to provide his version of the truth and quite a watchable movie- maybe?
    Does he still identify as Australian?

  12. murph the surf. says:

    Oh I thought this was movie review thread, in a round about sort of way…….a Guardian article this morning was primarily occupied by concern that the movie wasn’t to be shown first in Australia.
    A sort of Ultimate Cringe moment ? The producers(?) are British so maybe that is why.

  13. murph the surf. says:
    Following on with the idea about the Anzac revival this article by Henry Reynolds has an interesting suggestion re it’s use.
    “Since 1994 there has been a continuous program to commemorate the men and women who have served in Australia’s overseas wars from 1885 to the present. It will certainly continue and then be swept up into what will be an even more overwhelming carnival of commemoration to mark in 2015 the centenary of the landing on Gallipoli. This extraordinary flowering of military history has taken many older Australians by surprise because it is unprecedented. The generation that grew up between the 1950s and the 1980s has no experience to compare with the relentless, lavishly funded public campaign to make war the central, defining experience of national life. Whether by design or chance, the campaigns inevitably elbow aside all other competing interpretations of our history. Bravery on the battlefield outshines all the achievements of civil society. The soldier, not the statesman, has become the paragon of national achievement.”

  14. Stephen Hill says:

    One more good thing about the novel/film is it has increased awareness to raise money to rebuild the community library that was destroyed during the Bougainville conflict. Here is a Radio National interview with both Lloyd Jones and the head librarian.

  15. vickie lee says:

    Back to the film…. I thought it most beautiful, has a longing to it that Matilda exemplified so… soulfully. I watched it three times, and found it lingers longer each time. I wonder if the negative reviewers really watched it, how could they miss the reasons for the red nose and costumes? a heartbreaker.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Vickie

      I’ve just been over this thread thanks to your comments and had forgotten how enjoyable it was – as Patrick observed reaching for the +0.5 button.

      Please say more if you would of what you made of the red nose and costumes.

      • vickie lee says:

        While there could be many conjured, and imagined explanations for Mr Watt’s red nose, the obvious one that you just cannot lay aside, is found in his wives home. The poster of the play – Queen of Sheba- they both played in, and their roles in it. I had other thoughts about it, until the poster was revealed to answer the question. Mr Watts says he thought, if Grace reinvented herself she maybe could come out of her grief, so these roles became real to them. It truly was an enjoyable thread to read, glad you revisited!

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