LAUNCH OF AN IN­STANT CLAS­SIC

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

(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

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