Dir.: Ang Lee
With: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
There was so much potential for this film to be bad. Although the novel was published in 2001 and went on to win the Booker prize in 2002, no-one dared to adapt it back then – filming a teenage boy sharing a small boat with an adult Bengal tiger seemed impossible. Now in 2012 with the use of CGI, motion capture and 3D this movie turns out to be one of the most incredible cinema spectacles of the year.
The story deviates from the novel very little – it is narrated by the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to the writer (Rafe Spall), starting with Pi’s happy and spiritual childhood surrounded by zoo animals in Pondicherry, India, and going on to survive a shipwreck and drifting for 227 days through the Pacific Ocean together with Richard Parker, the tiger. The film rests on three main pillars – Suraj Sharma’s performance as the teenage Pi, Richard Parker’s tactile realism and the stunning views of the ocean. It is incredible to think that this is Suraj’s first acting job – his performance is saturated with so much feeling and spirit that it is impossible not to empathise with him to a great extent throughout all his adventures.
The story itself is no ordinary shipwreck survival like "Castaway" for example. "Life of Pi" is more of an Odyssey (even the French title of the novel is "The Odyssey of Pi"), it is a journey of self-discovery, wicked trials and a constant conversation with god. I am sure that the message of the film, that all religions and convictions have as much validity as the next, will find its critics as it did when the book came out. I, for my part, think that there is something terribly romantic about Pi’s final suggestion to the writer that he is free to choose whatever version of the story to believe in – the cruel and realistic one or the fantastical – as long as he likes it.
Fantastical is one of the key words to describe ‘Life of Pi’ with. The film is interspersed with moments of sereneness when Pi, despite the destitute conditions he finds himself in, is able to take in the power and glory of the nature around him. These scenes are usually slow and self-indulgent, with much of the scenery and marine life created digitally. And even though I knew that none of it was real, the interplay between colour and moving form was mesmerising. I actually felt my jaw drop when a blue whale leapt out of the ocean on a starry night (easily amused I am).
It is very impressive that this sort of divine and hyper-real beauty and spirituality were created by the same person who directed “Taking Woodstock”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “Hulk” and “Sense and Sensibility”. The other Ang Lee film that has a similar dream-like feel is of course “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Although both these films take place out in the wild and have many difficult to film elements, there is a strong sense of directorial control over them, especially in terms of their visual richness. And yet, Ang Lee doesn’t leave the kind of stylistic stamp on his works, unlike so many other directors. Instead, I think that he is the kind of director who lets the material speak for itself, and speak for itself it does.