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CINEMA: Director Ang Lee makes Pi's solo journey a real feast for the eyes

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Suraj Sharma as Pi in Ang Lee’s adaptaton of Yann Martel’s novel

Suraj Sharma as Pi in Ang Lee’s adaptaton of Yann Martel’s novel

Published: 3 January, 2013
by DAN CARRIER

LIFE OF PI
Directed by Ang Lee
Certificate: PG
Rating: 4 Out Of 5 Stars

THIS story was a brilliantly conceived novel, but one that relied heavily on the reader’s mind’s eye to create a seemingly impossible journey.

To bring it alive on screen requires a strong lead – the story centres on a solo voyage on a lifeboat through the vastness of the Pacific – some clever CGI, as the journey includes a Bengal tiger, and other effects to make what is seemingly easy to describe on a page come alive on a screen.

Simply put, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s exceptionally tricky novel is laid out  well as moving images.

Martel’s Booker winner was such a hit you could play Pi bingo on the Tube: for a time it seemed there’d be five or six people in each carriage with their noses buried in it. And rightly so: what a super novel it is.

The problem for Ang Lee was to carry over the side stories of a Kon-Tiki-style voyage (though heading in the opposite direction of Thor Heyerdahl and his adventurers) in a way that doesn’t make the main thrust of the tale too flabby.

At the start of the novel, Martel leads us on a clever riff about the nature of zoo animals – they don’t mind being locked up, he states, as they experience much less stress than their wild brethren, always worrying about being eaten by something bigger. He also gives us a wonderful passage on the nature of human spirituality, through the eyes of Pi, who is finding out about world religions and wondering why we bother with gods.

Pi (Suraj Sharma) is the son of a well-to-do Indian zoo owner. We meet the family in the French-held enclave of Pondicherry. We learn he got his name from a family friend who loved swimming, and said you simply hadn’t lived until you’d dipped in the Parisian waters of Piscine Molitor. This scene is particularly striking – French pool-dwellers, art-deco styling, a large man swimming through crystal-clear waters. It is a sequence that is exceptionally beautifully shot, and sets an early tone for the treat for the eyes that is to come.

We watch Pi grow up, until the fateful day his father announces they will be selling the zoo to various collections in America, and starting a new life in Canada.

Lee finds it hard to shoe-horn all of this important back-story in, but that can be forgiven. The moment Pi’s ship sinks, we are cast off into the rolling waves of a grand ocean that is simply beautiful to watch, exciting to behold, and thoughtful too.

A brilliantly rendered scene shows the loss of a ship, and suddenly our hero finds himself in a lifeboat with an orangutan, a coyote, a zebra and a Bengal tiger for company.

There is plenty of humour: Lee uses the device of having a novelist (Yann Martel, perchance?) meeting Pi in Canada to hear a story that he is told will “make you believe in God...” and this allows us to enjoy some of the nuances of Indian family life.

Lee’s previous have films rightly won him fans: Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility – all widely different but with his gorgeous eye overseeing it all.

Life of Pi is a worthy addition to an impressive roll call. Excitement, philosophical depth, scenes of immense beauty, and a great twist in the tale: pretty good ingredients for a film.

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