LAUNCH OF AN INSTANT CLASSIC
(PG) ★★★★✩ National release on January 1
(tbc) ★★★ ✩ National release on January 3
IF you thought Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi might pose insurmountable problems for a film adaptation, you’d have reckoned without Ang Lee. Born in Taiwan, where he made his early films, Lee has demonstrated through the years his mastery of any number of genres: British classicism ( Sense and Sensibility), martial arts spectacle ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), emotional drama ( The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain), sci-fi ( Hulk), western ( Ride with the Devil), World War II intrigue ( Lust, Caution) and comedy ( Taking Woodstock). Some of these films are better than others, but it’s an impressive list overall, and Life of Pi is up there near the top.
So much has been written and discussed about the central segment of the film, in which 17-year-old Piscine Patel (Suraj Sharma), who calls himself Pi, is stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean in the company of a fearsome Bengal tiger known as Richard Parker, that it seems almost superfluous to confirm that these scenes are amazingly well handled. Shooting in 3-D — and using the medium with effortless skill — in a vast water tank located at Taichung in Taiwan, Lee and a formidable technical team have succeeded in making these sequences, which would have been impossible to film only a few years ago, completely convincing and frequently terrifying. When the cargo ship on which Pi is travelling from India to Canada with his parents and animals from their private zoo is sunk by a fearsome storm, Pi at first finds himself in the company of a hyena, an orangutan and a zebra as well as the tiger but — survival of the fittest being what it is — before too long Pi and Richard Parker are left alone.
These scenes are so powerful — indeed, they have achieved the status of an instant classic — they inevitably overwhelm almost everything else the film has to offer. Most particularly, the framing story in which an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells his story to a writer (Rafe Spall) — presumably Martel himself — while preparing an Indian meal in the kitchen of his home in Montreal, seems a plodding and prosaic way of getting into the narrative. For this David Magee, who adapted the book for the screen, must take responsibility.
Pi’s story describes his childhood in the former French colonial city of Pondicherry where — played at the age of five by Gautam Belur and by Ayush Tandon at the age of 11 — he was raised as the younger son of Santosh Patel (Adil Hussain) and his wife, Gita (Tabu). Santosh, a lover of all things French, names his younger son after the French word for swimming pool, a name the boy later rejects and abbreviates. The couple runs a private zoo and the boy grows up with animals, including the aforementioned Richard Parker. He also grows to embrace all kinds of religion — Christian, Muslim, Buddhist — and to believe that animals, like humans, have souls (‘‘I have seen it in their eyes’’).
This background, presented matter-offactly, is really only the entree to the feast, and to the metaphysical questions that Lee and his team present as the film proceeds.
The extraordinary scenes on the ocean aren’t the end of the drama, of course, and the relationship between the comparatively frail human being and the fearsome beast continues after land is reached.
Sharma’s lack of acting experience is put to good use by the director as the youth seems to grow in stature and wisdom as the film proceeds. Despite some narrative flaws, Life of Pi represents something unique in contemporary cinema: a film that combines ideas and spectacle and in most respects succeeds triumphantly in both departments. A FEW days after the appalling massacre of schoolchildren and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, I watched the opening sequence of the new Tom Cruise thriller, Jack Reacher, with dismay. Similar to the opening of the Clint Eastwood thriller Dirty Harry (‘‘Make my day!’’) 50 years ago, this chilling scene places the viewer inside the sights of the weapon aimed by a murderous sniper at various