Normally when a film is listed as ‘in development’ for almost a decade, it’s a sign that nobody knows what the hell they’re doing with it. Over its 8 years in ‘development hell’, Life of Pi has switched hands many times, with M Night Shyamalan, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Alfonso Cuarón all slated to direct at one point or another. Throughout the process, critics and commentators have suggested that Yann Martel’s novel was un-filmable, thanks to its unusual structure and nebulous themes of faith and truth. And there’s also the novel’s central act, in which a young boy spends 227 days adrift in a lifeboat, accompanied only by a Bengal Tiger. It’s no surprise that this project would prove daunting even the most accomplished film makers.
But director Ang Lee is no ordinary film maker. If this was Olympic gymnastics, then the competitor from Chinese Taipei has selected a routine with an incredibly high tariff, landed it with both feet firmly together. Not only is Life of Pi a triumph of visual storytelling, it’s also one of the most affecting cinematic experiences of the year.
Named after a French swimming pool by his father’s eccentric friend, Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel (played by newcome Suraj Sharma as a teen and by Irrfan Khan as an adult) grows up in an idyllic zoo in India until his father decides to sell off the animals and move his family to Canada. When their freighter sinks, Pi finds himself adrift in the Pacific, sharing a lifeboat with a number of animals, including a full-grown tiger named Richard Parker.
Showing the same sensitivity to character and emotion that he did with his Oscar-winning film Brokeback Mountain, Lee turns Pi’s physical and spiritual ordeal into a compelling visual story. The spiritual element of the source novel could easily have been so very divisive. At the beginning of the film, we are told that Pi’s story is one that will prove to us the existence of God, which is an incredibly hubristic statement to make. Although, to be fair, the film never comes across as proselytising or smug – from early scenes where Pi and his father discuss faith and rationality to later scenes when the reality of Pi’s story is being brought into question, Lee never seems to ‘take sides’, as it were.
Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda have assembled a film with incredible visual panache, creating an intentionally artificial aesthetic that constantly makes us question what we’re seeing. His use of 3D on this film is also remarkable. No big fans of the stereoscopic craze, we were surprised by how immersive the experience felt, notably in a haunting shot where Pi watches his ship drift slowly into the depths of the ocean. We’ve always insisted on avoiding the 3D versions of films where possible but with Life of Pi, the effect is employed to such great effect that it becomes an essential part of the picture.
We could gush on about Life of Pi all day but as with most good films, you’re better off not knowing too much about it before you go in. It’s a remarkably faithful adaptation that never feels bound by its incredibly popular source novel. Instead, it is a treat for the senses: one that should appeal to a broad audience and will undoubtedly come back into focus when awards season rolls around next year.