The subjective message of a given film is the lifeblood of cinema, especially in this age of moodily complex Christopher Nolan blockbusters. Life of Pi however is the real deal.
Adapted from Yann Martel’s best-selling but deceptively complex novel, the cinematic incarnation is fraught potential for error. How does one interpret a book which derives power from what the reader chooses to take from it? And how does one transform Martel’s self-reflexive story, a commentary on the act of storytelling itself, into a gripping piece of drama?
The answer arrives in the form of Ang Lee. An Oscar-winning director with a formidable literary pedigree, Lee has in the past adapted the likes of Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain to enormous acclaim. There are common themes running throughout Lee’s book adaptations: a deft cultural sensitivity (it takes real skill to move from 19th century England to 20th century Wyoming within the space of a single career), and a willingness to respect the audience’s intelligence. Lee is rarely a director to clobber the viewer with a heavy-handed message, instead honing a visually appealing yet understated approach and allowing the strength of the source material to shine through.
Lee’s cultural awareness and steady directorial hand are crucial in guaranteeing the success of Life of Pi. The story begins in modern-day Canada with an Indian man named Piscine ‘Pi’ Molitor Patel (Irrfan Khan) talking to an enraptured writer (Rafe Spall). Pi apparently has an incredible story to tell – and so begins an astonishing journey that traverses compelling notions of faith, religion and philosophy. It’s also a cracking adventure to boot.
The first act gets underway with an extended flashback to Pi’s youth in which he’s revealed to be a complex character of multifaceted ethnic and religious characteristics. Having grown up around the family zoo in Pondicherry, India, Pi reveals that he was named after a swimming pool in France – not forgetting the French colonial heritage that underlies his birthplace (a feeling reflected in the sensitive cultural wash of Mychael Danna’s pleasingly subtle score).
Pi tires of being referred to as ‘pissing’ Patel at his school – but these problems are but a drop in the ocean compared to the crisis of faith he experiences when he gets older. Having determined to absorb aspects of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity as a child, the adolescent Pi (brilliantly played by Suraj Sharma) suddenly starts to question the spiritual direction of his life. As if signalled by a higher power, his father rocks the boat with some heartbreaking news: his family must move their zoo from India to Canada in order to begin a new life.
This gentle first act set-up is vital in establishing the themes of the film and the voyage of discovery dynamic to eventually be undertaken by the central character. Far from being a Golden Compass style hatchet job (in which the subtext of Phillip Pullman’s novel was all but gutted), Lee’s film understands that setting up the spiritual aspects of the narrative will deepen our emotional reaction later on. It’s a bracing and intelligent beginning, introducing young audiences to complex ideas in a visually stimulating way whilst also proving thoughtful to adults.
The second act begins with a ferocious blast of ocean-bound terror as the ship on which Pi and his family are sailing, The Tsimtsum, sinks in a fierce storm. Here is where we get our first taste of how good the CGI effects are as they blend effortlessly with the physical sets, the thunderous sound design causing viewers to cower in their seats. Cast adrift on a lifeboat on the churning sea, Pi awakens to discover he is sharing his new abode with a lame zebra, an orangutan and a hyena. As nature takes its inevitably cruel course and the animals are whittled down, Pi is left to face his mortal enemy: a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, whose nature he naively attempted to understand as a small child.
Having already established his cultural awareness, this is the point where Lee’s affinity for crisp, clear storytelling elevates it to even higher levels. In the trailer (although not in the film), our cue for the sea-bound section of Pi’s life is a line saying ‘The next part of the story you will find hard to believe.’ Using that line as a springboard, Lee makes the brave decision of presenting the apparently absurd boy-tiger-lifeboat situation in a completely straight-faced way. Is it possible for a boy and tiger to be stranded together? Or are we seeing an allegorical representation of something else entirely? What do we want to believe?
These provocative notions become ever more-so in during the final stretch of the film. The older Pi says himself that to believe in a story is itself an act of faith. Lee’s film cleverly holds the mirror up to the audience, using the adventure framework to get the audience to think about what they believe, and what this says about their own faith. Although the film is one of the most beautiful of the year, Lee makes the wise decision not to impose garish directorial fireworks on the drama. After all, less spoon-feeding of the audience allows them to interpret what’s going on as they see fit.
Yet if this sounds ponderous and worthy, rest-assured the film is anything but. It’s as much a visually dazzling adventure story as it is a reflection on spirituality. Lee’s discreet but spectacular images will haunt the mind for days afterwards: a gold-hued sea resembling the sun reflected in a giant mirror; myriads of flying fish swooping and diving; a phosphorescent island inhabited only by meerkats.
The film is never less than a genuinely visceral experience, the nail-biting encounters between Pi and Richard Parker roaring with conviction due to the seamless blend of CGI and real animals. In truth, the two characters have better chemistry than 90% of modern Hollywood romances. Sharma gives a wonderfully battered performance, the actor conveying Pi’s increasing mental and physical fortitude during this primal battle which may itself be an act of God. It’s amazing to learn this is the actor’s debut – they don’t come more challenging but he pulls it off effortlessly. He’s nicely complemented by the warm and appealing Khan as the older Pi, whose hypnotic voice is put to excellent use.
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But the real star of the show is Lee himself. As director, he again demonstrates his uncanny ability to get inside a noteworthy literary work and draw out the themes so they may take flight on the big-screen. With Life of Pi, he has crafted an impeccable adaptation of a terrific novel yet one needn’t have read Martel’s book in order to enjoy it, so compelling is the film on the dual levels of adventure story and spiritual odyssey. Jaw-dropping, exciting, humorous and moving in equal measure, Life of Pi is one of the best films of 2012.