Mister Pip is the story of a girl caught in the throes of war on the island of Bougainville. It is through the guidance of her devoted but strict Christian mother and teacher that Matilda survives but more importantly, through her connection with Pip, a fictional creation from the mind of Charles Dickens in Great Expectations. Pip helps Matilda maintain a desire to live, especially after her mother, the wise Mr. Watts, and her island cease to exist.
The novel opens with a colorful description of Mr. Watts, whom the children call Pop-Eye due to his eyes that "stuck out further than anyone else's". We learn of his marriage to Grace, a native of Bougainville, which serves to explain why he remained long after most of the white men had abandoned the island. With military tension rising and the school room growing over with creepers, Mr. Watts decides to take on the task of educating the children. Despite his claim to be limited in intelligence, he introduces the students to one of the greatest English authors, Charles Dickens.
Dolores, Matilda's overzealous Christian mother, expresses an extreme distrust of the teacher and his curriculum. She does everything in her power to ensure that her daughter's mind is not polluted by the strange white man, including making weekly visits to the classroom. She even goes as far as stealing and hiding Mr. Watts's Great Expectations book, an action that causes immense trouble when redskin soldiers enter the village and find Mr. Pip's name carved into the sand. Coincidentally, it is Matilda who wrote his name, and it is her guilt that makes her empathize with her mother, who refuses to give up the book as evidence of Pip as not a rebel but a fictional character. Convinced that this Mr. Pip must be a spy who has been hidden from them, the redskins destroy the houses. All they leave behind are smoking fragments of Matilda's former life.
As the tension escalates even further, a group of rebel soldiers returns to the village to question the only remaining white man, Mr. Watts. He agrees to explain himself over the course of seven nights, and proceeds to tell a story that entwines Pip's life even further with his own. Matilda develops an idea about why he returned to the island with his wife and stayed after all the other whites left. Now that his wife has died, Mr. Watts considers moving on and offers Matilda a chance to escape from the island. However, she would have to choose between Mr. Watts and her mother but before this can happen the rebels flee and the redskin soldiers return.
This time the soldiers kill Mr. Watts, and when Matilda's mother speaks up she is taken away and raped. Matilda herself is almost raped, but her mother gives up her life to spare her. In the wake of surviving the slaughter of her village, her mother and Mr. Watts, Matilda loses her will to live. She nearly drowns, but is revived by the memory of Pip, who also narrowly escaped death. After clinging to a log, Matilda is picked up by the fisherman who had arranged to escape with Mr. Watts, and eventually she reaches Australia. It is there that Matilda is reunited with her father and begins to pick up the pieces of her disrupted life. She comes to terms with the reality of Mr. Watts, who altered both the facts of his life and abridged the contents in Great Expectations in an effort to provide escape from the world, both for himself and for the children. She reveals her success in becoming a scholar and a Dickens expert and concludes her narrative by emphasizing the power of literature to offer escape and solace in the worst of times. Matilda herself becomes a teacher in Australia in order to fulfill her dream and educate people, but to also keep the memory of Mr Watts alive.
Mr Pip was filmed in the village of Pidia on Bougainville Island, a territory of Papua New Guinea, and in Auckland and Oamaru in New Zealand, between June and September 2011.
In Bougainville, the beautiful white sand beaches, lush tropical rainforest, the exotic look of the village buildings and the blue seas and skies made an idyllic backdrop for the lyrical scenes of village life and the developing friendship of Matilda and Mr Watts. The beauty of this environment contrasts sharply with the jolting reality of the harsh wartime parts of the story that take place in the village. The Lloyd Jones novel, Mister Pip, upon which the film is based, was set in Bougainville during the 1990s when the country was torn apart by a war over copper mining and land rights, and most of the story it tells is very close to the experiences of the people there.