Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi in many people’s opinions was unfilmable. A story about a boy in a boat with a tiger seemed like it was better left on the page then appearing on the big screen. Then again, the same was said about a quest to destroy a ring and a guy starting up an underground fight club and look how they turned out? Thankfully, Ang Lee has steered Pi Patel’s ropey little boat onto majestic and stunning seas with one of the most beautiful films you’ll see this year.
Lee’s adaptation sets sail on a current that is slow and steady to start. We first meet Pi in the form of Irfan Khan who is unravelling an extraordinary chapter of his life to Rafe Spall’s nameless writer. In his younger years when his family owned a zoo, Piscine (eventually changed to Pi to avoid some obvious name calling) Patel is keen to learn the ways of the world and the powers responsible for its creation. Expanding his faith into Hinduism, Christianity and Islam the youngster’s thirst for understanding is a subject for debate amongst his family that eventually becomes the one thing that will keep him stable during his most life-changing experience.
In an effort to find a new home, Pi’s family set sail for Canada in the hope of selling some of the zoo’s attractions along the way. This brave new venture does not come to pass though, as the ship they’re travelling on runs in rough waters with all but the youngest Patel being left alive. Now as the only human survivor, the sea swept teen is forced to fend for himself, facing more danger than your average castaway when his life boat is boarded by some of the zoos inhabitants. A zebra, an orang-utan and a hyena take refuge only to be quickly assigned their slot in the food chain thanks to the icing on Pi’s problematic cake; Richard Parker, a ferocious Bengal tiger. It is this difficult and fascinating pairing of man and beast where things really get going and allows Ang Lee’s creativity to spill out onto the screen as a result.
It’s no secret that the director of Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and even ho-hum Hulk with its comic-page storytelling has given us some impressive sights, but it’s his latest that’s a thing of true beauty. From the get go, shots burst with a vivid colour and clarity that light up the screen and ease you in to a world you wished you lived in and that’s before Pi even gets his sea legs. When our hero is forced to climb aboard his makeshift home that remains the locale for the majority of the film, it’s a wonder if Lee didn’t put down the camera and pick up a paintbrush instead. Whether it’s the eerie glow of the ocean depths at night giving your eyes a treat or the glorious amber hue of the sky that warms a school of very excited flying fish, there’s just never a dull image on the screen. It’s with these extraordinary eyegasms that Lee could have slipped up and chosen style over wasted substance but thankfully that’s not the case at all.
With various versions of Pi dropping in and out through his younger years, the heaviest load understandably rests on Suraj Sharma who takes the helm for the majority and does a cracking job even if it is debut. Considering that the terrifying Richard Parker is a seamless blend of CGI and safely handled real-life tiger, Sharma is for the most part facing off against something that isn’t even there and is believable regardless. It’s a standard procedure for actors nowadays but considering this is Sharma’s first gig, it’s a commendable effort. The success isn’t just playing pretend tiger-tamer though, but Pi’s personal journey as well. Depending on a how-to guide on surviving a shipwreck, faith in the powers that be and his own sanity, Sharma’s Pi is a one man band you’re urging to get through all of this unscathed even being safe in the knowledge that he’ll eventually be reciting all of these events in his later years. It’s a true sign of a successful breakout performance and one that should pave a way for future roles to come.