Release Date: 20th December 2012
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu
After two decades making critically acclaimed movies, Ang Lee is one of the most preeminent figures in world cinema. Effortlessly flitting between the US and his native Taiwan, he boasts an eclectic filmography that includes a martial arts epic, English period drama and homoerotic western. But only with his latest release, Life of Pi, has the director finally made a film as genre-defying and international as his prestigious career. It also happens to be the most beautifully realised production you’re likely to see this year.
Based on Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi is a fantastical tale of survival and spirituality. When his father decides to uproot his family from the Pondicherry region of India to Canada, Pi Patel finds himself on a large cargo ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Far from plain sailing, however, a savage storm strikes in the middle of the night and causes the vessel to sink. The sole human survivor, Pi manages to board a tiny lifeboat, which he is forced to share with a vicious Bengal tiger known as Richard Parker. What follows is a series of events that tests Pi’s resilience and faith to the limit as he attempts to make his way back to civilization.
From the film’s very opening shots, it becomes apparent that Lee is intent on providing a deeply visual experience. Working closely with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, he has adopted a vibrant colour palette to match the exotic and miraculous elements of Pi’s story. One particularly memorable moment occurs in the dead of night, when the dark ocean water is miraculously illuminated by shoals of phosphorescent fish. At a time when many leading directors are clinging to celluloid for dear life, it proves once and for all that digital can be just as dazzling to watch.
It’s also worth noting just how expertly the film uses 3D. Up until recently James Cameron’s Avatar has repeatedly been considered the benchmark by which all other 3D features are judged, but surely this mantle now belongs to Life of Pi. In a film that features some highly stylized visuals, Lee simultaneously uses the format to add to the spectacle whilst also grounding the proceedings in a physical reality. Indeed, you’ll leave the cinema feeling like you were actually on the lifeboat next to Pi and the tiger.
With such exhilarating photography, then, it’s a shame that David Magee’s screenplay fails to attain the same high standards. The first act, for instance, seems rather turgid, delaying the inevitable shipwreck for longer than is really necessary, while much of the religious content is a bit heavy handed. That said, Martel’s original source doesn’t lend itself easily to adaptation, and Magee has managed to inject lots of humour into a film that could otherwise have been a rather dull and morbid affair.
It’s almost certain that Life of Pi will feature prominently during the upcoming awards season. Ang Lee and his collaborators have pushed cinematic boundaries to create something visually arresting yet also emotionally engaging. Voters could do a lot worse than reward them for their efforts.