Life of Pi

Always tricky writing a review the week of any awards announcements: the Golden Globes gongs surprise little: Lincolnand Day-Lewis; Ben Affleck twice – or perhaps squared, in this context – best director for Argo,best drama; Jessica Chastain but not Katherine Bigelow for the controversial Zero Dark Thirty. Laments for lack of women and minorities as ever in both Globe and Oscar shortlists – so much so that there is a global petition doing the rounds, protesting the issue. Amourdeservedly won best foreign film – that is a no contest – though why only foreign film I don’t know, but I have yet to see Argo, so may be wrong.

So to Life of Pi, overlooked according to some for best drama and best director. Being a bookish sort of person, I had of course read it long before it won the Booker, enjoyed it and, as a result, was looking forward to seeing what Ang Lee could make of it, albeit with some fine technical assistance. 

The story is well-known: a young Indian boy sets sail for Canada with his family and its zoo, only to be shipwrecked and find himself sharing a lifeboat with, initially at least, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and of course Richard Parker, the tiger. The majority of this rather over-long film is set in and around the boat, and documents Pi’s struggles to tame Richard Parker in order to survive: ‘I had to tame him, it was not a question of him or me, but of him and me. We were literally and figuratively in the same boat’.

There are many good things about the film: first and foremost the staggering cinematography (Claudio Miranda), even if CGI-ed into the stratosphere. I was lucky enough to see the film in 3-D – this time our cinema providing not only plastic wrapped glasses (was put off last time as they were loose and thus felt a bit ‘used’) but also a drinks trolley complete with cocktail waitress! Sadly it was my day ‘off’, so had to resist the temptation. Given the intensely irritating noise of sweet wrappings and talkative children, under the age of five (what were the parents thinking? Richard Parker must have terrified them) I could have used a martini to calm me down.

Back to Pi…some scenes are breathtakingly beautiful: for instance, the luminosity of the jelly fish, the giant whale shark’s elegant dance, revelations of the mystery of the deep, the power and glory of the storms at sea. Others are symbolic: it did not escape me that the poisoned island resembles a sleeping Vishnu. I liked the multi-layered faith narrative: the young Pi is engaging as he lurches from Hinduism, through Christianity to Islam and even in Canada, encompasses Judaism when he admits to teaching Kabbalah.

There is a gentle humour in the first part of the film, set in Pondicherry (note to self, must go there on holiday): any boy called Piscine Molitor Patel after a French swimming pool has no option but to counter his misfortune with wit – his rendition of the Pi formula to justify his re-naming is a joy to watch. This humour dwindles as Pi’s situation becomes more extreme, but occasionally re-emerges: ‘I can eat the biscuits, but God made tigers carnivorous, so I must learn to catch fish. If I don’t, then I am afraid his last meal would be a skinny vegetarian boy’. 

It is always difficult to pull off a film with only one or two characters: here we have Pi – as child, teenager and adult – and Richard Parker; the rest of the cast, especially Pi’s parents (fine performances from Adil Hussain and Tabu), are supporting roles. It is to Suraj Sharma’s (teenage Pi) great credit that he creates a believable personality – a blend of empathy, humour, naivety and obduracy – which carry the movie. And Ang Lee’s skill that all three ages of Pi merge flawlessly. As for Richard Parker – the animators have triumphed in delivering a realistic yet sympathetic anthropomorphic being, a credible alter ego.

Re-reading this, it sounds like a four star review. But somehow it isn’t: another sum of the parts not adding up. While able to sit back, relax and enjoy the spectacle unfolding in 3-D on the screen, I felt nevertheless drowned by the sea and restless as if waiting to be rescued: it is a good 15 minutes too long. Ang Lee is no doubt a great director, but I for one will not be jumping up and down saying he was robbed of a Golden Globe or Oscar. I have seen better films during the past year.

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