Tuesday, 1 January 2013
FILM REVIEW: LIFE OF PI
20th Century Fox Films
A boy adrift at sea for 227 days with no one for company but a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The premise of Life of Pi, a bestselling novel by Yann Martel, must have seemed unfilmable, and indeed, many directors - Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie), M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), and Alfonso Cuaron (The Prisoner of Azkaban) among them - all passed on the project.
But with a resume a diverse as any -- Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain -- and no stranger to a challenge and no prisoner to genre, Ang Lee has proven to be the right man for the job. And while ostensibly Lee has distilled the book into that very brief synopsis, he has made a film that is about so much more than an Indian boy and a tiger together at sea.
Pi (first-time actor Suraj Sharma) finds himself all at sea when during a storm the ship he and his family (father, mother and older brother) are travelling on -- from India to Canada -- sinks. The tiger, named for the hunter who captured him, was one of the animals whom Pi's father was bringing with them from their home in Pondicherry, India where they owned and operated a zoo.
A zebra, orangutan and hyena also survived the ship's sinking and scrambled into Pi's and Richard Parker's lifeboat, but you don't need to be David Attenborough to deduce what happens to those three. Even out of its element, nature -- and Darwinism -- will out and those at the top of the food chain remain; Pi and Richard Parker spending the next days, weeks and months coming to an understanding about how their worlds -- a lifeboat and a makeshift raft -- will now co-exist.
The pair's time at sea makes up the bulk of Lee's film which is framed by a modern day sequence set in Canada, where an older Pi (played beautifully by Irrfan Khan) recounts his seafaring adventure to a writer (Rafe Spall). This tale also includes Pi's childhood in India where the young boy developed a fascination for various faiths and a belief in an ecumenical god.
And faith is one thing that helps sustain Pi while he is at sea but Life of Pi is not a film about religion. It is spiritual, yes, but it is not concerned with God. The devil, however, is in the detail. A more beautiful looking film you will be hard pressed to find; Claudio Miranda's cinematography is simply stunning while the 3D is some of the best ever deployed in cinema. Never distracting or for novel effect, the 3D expands and informs the universe which Pi and the tiger inhabit.
As does the CGI work in the film: Richard Parker is, of course, not a real tiger but you'll have trouble discerning between the real tigers which were used during the shoot and those which are rendered by computer.
But you'll have no trouble believing in Pi. Sharma, who only attended the auditions for the film to accompany his brother, brings the necessary wide-eyed innocence to the role of a boy who becomes a man yet never loses his desire to believe in the best of all things. And the sting in the tiger's tale will let you know why.
Like The Grey, Joe Carnahan's impressive yet sadly overlooked film released earlier in 2012, Life of Pi is a tale of survival; of man versus nature; and of man versus himself. Despite the differing looks and approaches of each film -- one is as cold and stark as the other is vibrant and beautiful -- the two make for an excellent double bill: as studies of man's capacity to thrive against the odds, to find hope where it seems impossible, and to seek solace in faith whether from the heavens or from within.
That Life of Pi left me less moved than I had hoped to be is just as much a failing on my part as it is the film's. Ang Lee doesn't do easy emotion and as much as this has been produced as a family film, Life of Pi doesn't dumb down its intent to please an audience. I can respect that, and highly recommend Life of Pi as a journey well worth taking.