Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi was a best seller and much loved. However the story of a young man’s spiritual journey whilst stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger was considered by many to be unfilmable. But Ang Lee, director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, has proven that with the right director there is no such thing as unfilmable, creating a piece of art that is both highly spiritual and visually breathtaking.
I haven’t read Yann Martel’s novel so I can’t comment on how faithful an adaptation Lee’s film is, but I don’t really think it is important. I find it frustrating when people get hung up on the similarities and differences between novels and film adaptation and about which is better. A faithful adaptation of a novel does not necessarily make a good film. It is more important that the filmmaker use the novel as inspiration for his/her own take on the story. For example, Coppola’s The Godfather is a great film. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a great novel. But stylistically they are quite different, with Puzo’s novel being kind of pulpy, while Coppola’s film is grand and operatic. So its faithfulness to Martel’s Life of Pi isn’t as important as the fact that Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a very good film in its own right.
At the beginning of the film the writer tells the adult Pi that he has sought him out because he has been told he “had a story that would make me believe in God.” It is this spiritual element which differentiates Life of Pi from Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away and other survival stories we have seen – that and the Bengal tiger. A very spiritual man, Pi sees his journey as having a spiritual significance that goes well beyond a simple fight for survival.
Above everything else, Lee’s film looks amazing. Life of Pi is a stunning aesthetic achievement. With the use of digital technology Lee creates a heightened reality out at sea. Sometimes the sea is rough and choppy and looks very realistic, but at others it is so still and flat it is as though Pi’s boat is floating on nothing at all. This is one of the few films you should try and make sure you see in 3D. I’m not a huge fan of 3D movies, I think the vast majority of the time it is a gimmick used to inflate box office figures, but there are a handful of films which have really demonstrated the potential of the medium if used properly and Life of Pi is one of them.
Equal to the visual achievement as the film’s overall aesthetic is the believability of the tiger, Richard Parker. At the end of the day, the success or failure of the film was largely going to be determined by how successfully Lee made you believe that you were watching a boy and a tiger together on a boat. Richard Parker is created almost entirely with CGI, a wise move as it means there is a consistent look whereas had they tried to use a real tiger as much as possible, there would undoubtedly been jarring moments which would draw attention to the CGI tiger. The computer generated tiger looks brilliant though. You never doubt the reality of the beast before you. Credit should also go to Suraj Sharma, whose performance opposite a CGI tiger is pivotal in establishing the believability of the animal.
Life of Pi is a beautiful, thoughtful film which will be a definite player in the upcoming award season, particularly in the fields of visual effects, cinematography and directing.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean