Director: Ang Lee.
Producers: Ang Lee, Gil Netter.
Writer: David Magee.
Camera: Claudio Miranda.
Music: Mychael Danna.
Sets: David Gropman.
Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Ayush Tandon, Gautum Belur, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Gerard Depardieu, Andrea Di Stefano.
A strange journey awaits the highly intelligent and ever curious Pi (Sharma as a teenager, Khan as an adult) when his family emigrate from India to Canada, taking with them the creatures from their zoo that they will sell on arrival. A storm sinks their ship leaving Pi adrift on a lifeboat, the only survivor. That is, apart from a ferocious tiger, enigmatically known as Richard Parker. Recounting his ordeal as an adult (Khan), Pi learns to subdue the tiger and coexist with it, he not only finds how to survive his ordeal mentally but begins to understand what God is.
A film to put you in a good mood, despite the admittedly arduous plot line. For me it helped that the showing I attended featured no trailers or adverts – so a thumbs up before the opening credits had rolled!
A difficult novel to film, but Lee shows his extraordinary intelligence as a film-maker throughout. It’s always arguable whether the framing device of having flashbacks from a character to his younger self is either a necessary tool to position the narrative or an irritating, disposable stylistic folly that can weigh down the ebb and flow of the piece, but Lee has made sure to avoid this pit-fall. The seamless editing for a start sees us gently taken from wistful recollection to storm tossed seas, using the ripple of water as an appropriate lap dissolve between the two.
A lifeboat set film doesn’t inspire a viewer with confidence in the action stakes (Hitchcock’s Lifeboat being a suspenseful exception), but the time whizzes by thanks to a number of carefully spaced set-pieces from the magnificent, balletic shipwreck (rendered with sea-sickness inducing reality), a phosphorescent humpback whale breaching over Pi’s little boat and the downright bizarre ‘Meerkat Island’ (try comparing this community!). The tiger is brought to roaring life by the best CGI technicians, but Lee’s main achievement on the mechanical side of this film is to correctly utilise the 3D technology to embellish his story, rather than to swamp it or use only occasionally for throw away spectacle.
Pi is an engagingly resourceful character at all points in his life, enhanced by the pitch-perfect performances of those playing him. Each is able to show the progression of boy to man but Sharma, with no previous acting experience to his credit, should take most of the plaudits as the Pi who is cast adrift, but never loses his way. Khan has the lion’s share of the laughs as a jovial adult Pi. Depardieu makes an unexpected cameo as a foul, racist cook who abuses Pi’s family and almost starves them. Spall has a sweeter supporting turn as the Canadian novelist who wants to turn Pi’s history into a book.
Forget reviews that point out the similarities to the deeper aspects of Yann Martel’s novel, that being an existential rumination on the nature and form of God. Lee has paid decent lip service to this side of the story and a rich vein of religious and self discovery pervades the film. But he has wisely chosen to make something of beauty and wonder, as much as about the world around us than of a higher power, rather than trying to create a cinematic theology lecture.