When reviewing films, the best thing of all is to be surprised. A negative surprise- an unexpectedly poor or disappointing film- is a dark cloud with a silver lining- the chance to pick up your sharpest electronic quill and rant about it ’til the cows come home.
A positive suprise is even better. When a critic is proved wrong, its sunshine you could give to the weatherman. And so it is with Life of Pi. Here is a film I slated venomously when I first heard about it- see one of my earliest blogs. So I went to see it with some of my best friends, and was the only person slightly nervous about what I was going to see.
I love this book. It is an absolutely spellbinding testament to the art of story-telling. Its themes cover faith, fables, stories, nature and at its heart is a latter-day Moses who cannot part the sea, a Barnum who can’t control the circus. Its story is simple: after the sinking of the ship that was carrying his entire life overseas, the eclectic Pi Patel finds himself on a Lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean- alone, but for a Bengal Tiger.
When someone describes a novel as “unfilmable”, you generally believe them, because you can guarantee that there is some sort of cinema-masochist somewhere who has thought up even the most jaw-droppingly bad ideas for a film. And Life of Pi is a truly dreadful premise for a film.
And yet, in the hands of Ang Lee, this film has surpassed every expectation I gave it. It isn’t my film of the year, but its certainly up there. Not only has he made 227 days of a boy and a tiger sitting in a small boat into a story, without sentencing each other (or the audience) to death-by-boredom, but he’s done it with extraordinary faith to the source text.
No, its not as good as the book. It lacks the complexity in Yann Martel’s questioning the validity of faith, so its eventual resolution that faith is integral to life, regardless of what one believes in, seems a little too easily come-by, like the unexpected saviour in so many Hollywood films. But it captures the enrapturing power of story-telling, and is unflinching in the red-in-tooth-and-claw reality of nature and its creatures, right up to the genuinely unsettling revelation of an alternative story our narrator might have told.
Lee has achieved the subtlety of his craft I had doubted so long in him. When I saw that ridiculous florescent-whale-shot (still my least favourite scene in the film) in the trailer, my heart sank. But this, it seems was an aberration to an otherwise understated and profoundly deep visual language. Look out for the shot that mimics precisely the iconic front cover of the book. The moment I saw that, any misgivings I had over Lee’s vision were gone. Its spectacular.
And the 3D- the 3D was really good. Let me say that again. The 3D was really, especially good. I have no time for the currently money-spinning industry fixation with 3D, but here it added a little magic. I tried taking off my glasses a couple of times and I could watch it just fine. There was no 3D where it wasn’t needed. It was so refreshing to see. I would have not lost much had I not had the 3D, but here it was a subtle visual treat that genuinely made me smile. Lee uses it sparingly, to make visible the act of story-telling in the way that Brecht used the theatre as a space to reveal stories, not hide their origins.
As an example, take another look at the clip I posted at the head. Look at how the aspect ratio of the picture changes- and how the fish break the frame and appear to swim out beyond the limits of the picture. It just makes me feel a little bit happier to see it.
Despite all the fireworks, the crucial end scenes succeed because they don’t feel obliged to end on a bang. The shocking denouement is told almost in a single take as the weeping Suraj Sharma reveals that he may be as much a monster as the tiger he tamed. This, more than any other shot, confirms the truth at the heart of the novel- the overwhelming emotional force of story-telling, and its importance to Pi in accepting himself as a human being. His mythopoetic talent marks him out from the beast.
Sharma, as a first time actor, makes a pleasurable companion for 227 days at sea. Bollywood legend Irrfan Kahn is compelling as his older, narrating self. Rafe Spall is a likable Caucasian presence whose success in the role can be measured by the fact that he never gets in the way of his Indian co-stars. Gerard Depardieu was the surprise casting whom I didn’t see coming, and his brief appearance lends considerable weight to a minor but important role.
There is much more I could say. But I have a dissertation to write, and it isn’t about Life of Pi. So I’ll just let this post add a little sunshine back into my day, and remind me as I aim furiously for top marks that getting it wrong is sometimes the best feeling you can have.