If Midnight’s Children forms the season’s obligation appointment for bookclub loyalists to fidget through, then Life of Pi is the convivial sit-down meal. Ang Lee’s film – adapted from Yann Martel’s Booker-winning novel by David Magee – is framed as exactly that: an extended flashback that the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) serves up over Quorn and apple juice to a sceptical author/audience surrogate (Rafe Spall), telling him the things he’s seen. This is, from the off, a long, tall story – think Titanic meets We Bought a Zoo – in which we learn how the younger Pi (Suraj Sharma) gained his name from a Parisian swimming pool and his hardy character from the formative experience that left him floating at sea, for months on end, with what he could salvage of the menagerie his parents were transporting from India to Canada.
It’s the kind of mythmaking through which we’re meant to contemplate the wonders and mysteries of the universe. Why should there be meaning or an order to life? Why would a lotus flower hide in the forest? And more pressingly: how might a boy co-exist on a bobbing coracle with a bloody great Bengal tiger, and live to tell the tale? This latter has the feel of an existential flatshare comedy – a seasick Odd Couple, nervily circling one another in a confined space in a suggestive middle-of-nowhere – going on within a wider quest for knowledge. Western filmmakers would make a nerd out of a character who can annotate mathematical pi to a thousand decimal places; Lee seeks to make him heroic.
At the same time, Life of Pi is clearly meant to stand as a demonstration of the wonders of the modern cinema. Just as his hero is searching for enlightenment, so Lee seems to have solved the problem of how best to illuminate the 3D image: with candles, sunrises and phosphorescent algae. As in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this director marshals his effects team to engage and stir us: they, in turn, give him the most terrifying shipwreck sequence since James Cameron first set sail, and a furrily photorealistic tiger that’s neither crouching nor hidden, but half the show. Yet for all its complicated process shots, the film retains an organic feel – or at least enough of one not to appear hypocritical in making a villain out of the ship’s chef (the newly Belgian Gerard Depardieu) for refusing to serve vegetarian options. Amid some of the junk cluttering the multiplexes, this is cinematic soul food, gazing up in wonder at Pi swimming against the heavens, marvelling at swarms of stereoscopic flying fish.
It should be said that Martel’s story remains largely opaque, and dependant more than most on what individual viewers are prepared to read into it; don’t be surprised if at least one rational acquaintance dismisses it as merely a dazzling example of screensaver cinema. Still, it’s a considerably smoother journey than Slumdog Millionaire, to cite another recent example of Asian-Americana, locating in Sharma’s very likable, concerned presence a welcome balance between the narrative’s earthly and spiritual aspects. In this atheist age, it may be as close to a religious experience as one gets over the holidays, forever poised to pull back and show God – or the movie gods, at least – moving over the face of the waters.
(MovieMail, December 2012)
Life of Pi screens on Channel 4 tonight at 8pm.