When a book is labelled ‘unfilmable’ you can bet a whole bunch of directors suddenly become interested. It must be a badge of honour among film-makers to have in their filmography a successful picture adapted from such a publication. Now Ang Lee has added his name to that club with this highly anticipated big screen version of Yann Martel’s novel about faith and survival, Life of Pi.
Piscine Patel is an Indian boy who changes his name to Pi in an effort to stop his classmates calling him ‘Pissing’. His family owns a zoo but when they fall on hard times they decide to relocate to Canada but their ship sinks in a Pacific thunderstorm and Pi finds himself adrift in a lifeboat with only a Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker for company.
Life of Pi is a fairly extraordinary journey, one that speculates on the power of faith and the brutality of nature but at heart it is an absorbing survival adventure. The religious message is not remotely preachy and doesn’t really present any clearly defined spiritual answers; instead the film offers a refreshingly open-minded and positive depiction of the power of faith without hiding from the subject’s more difficult questions.
But however you react to what could be a mildly contentious issue the main draw of the film is the central survival situation. The sinking of the ship is done in spectacular and harrowing style and the desperation of Pi’s plight is a cause for tension throughout. But the film is more than just a Robinson Crusoe story and the clear highlight is Pi’s interaction with Richard Parker represented both by a real tiger and some peerless CGI. A highly-trained eye might be able to tell which shots feature a real tiger and which digital but the story is so immersive that you won’t be looking. The depth and intricacies of their interactions are brilliantly realised and the danger of Pi’s situation is very real.
For a film that spends a vast amount of its running time in a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific it is consistently absorbing and frequently very powerful. It plays on universal themes of humanity and the staging of some mind-boggling set-pieces is an undeniable triumph. There are some complaints; it takes time to get going as it establishes Pi’s life story and the wrap-up is rather long-winded. The 3D, which has been billed as some of the best since Avatar is indeed considerably better than any I’ve seen in a live-action film but I still don’t think it added much to the story or the experience as a whole. Also my viewing was rather spoiled by the noisiest most inconsiderate cinema audience I’ve ever had to endure but with a film this good the brilliance of an extremely talented director and a revelation of a debut star is immutable.
Rightly billed as a masterpiece, Life of Pi is a unique cinematic experience with heart and soul.