Fan­tas­tic voy­age

Ang Lee’s am­bi­tious new film is a daz­zling emo­tional epic, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEW FILM - Di­rected by Ang Lee. Star­ring Su­raj Sharma, Ayush Tandon, Ir­rfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hus­sain, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depar­dieu PG cert, gen­eral re­lease, 127 min

To­wards the be­gin­ning of Ang Lee’s gor­geous, faintly psy­che­delic ad­ven­ture yarn, the tit­u­lar pro­tag­o­nist prom­ises (or, pos­si­bly, warns) his amanu­en­sis that the tale he is about to tell will make the bud­ding writer “be­lieve in God”. Sec­u­lar­ists will find their hack­les ris­ing ever so slightly. We come to the cin­ema to get away from God. Don’t we?

As it hap­pens, the film – like Yann Martel’s 2001 source novel – hedges its bets in this area.

Young Pi, raised in the former French sec­tion of In­dia, re­ceives, as a child, some sage ad­vice from his sen­si­ble fa­ther. Aware that the boy is dab­bling in ev­ery pass­ing re­li­gion, the older man, a ra­tio­nal­ist, ar­gues that, if Pi must at­tach him­self to su­per­nat­u­ral be­lief sys­tems, he’d be bet­ter ad­vised to pick one and stick with it.

The film does not fol­low dad’s sug­ges­tions. Life of Pi looks to ac­com­mo­date all those peo­ple who, though not at home to or­gan­ised re­li­gion, feel they are in some sense “spir­i­tual” (what­ever that might mean). The “mind body and spirit” sec­tion of Book­World is full of them.

Any­way, that slightly grumpy gripe out of the way, it must be ac­knowl­edged that Life of Pi is an in­tox­i­cat­ing de­light from sweet start to poignant close. Early trail­ers sug­gested that we might be fac­ing up to this year’s The Lovely Bones. The morass of com­put­er­gen­er­ated im­agery looked daunt­ing. But, once again, Lee proves him­self an ex­cel­lent sto­ry­teller with a unique gift for con­vey­ing emo­tional cathar­sis through the sup­pressed whim­per. Pi’s fi­nal rev­e­la­tion is ev­ery bit as mov­ing as Heath Ledger’s cli­mac­tic lines in Lee’s Broke­back Moun­tain. Be­fore then, there’s an aw­ful lot of mag­i­cal re­al­ism to be got through.

Played equally bril­liantly by three ac­tors – the cheeky Su­raj Sharma, the fear­less Ayush Tandon and the pro­found Ir­rfan Khan – Pi grows up in and about his fa­ther’s im­plau­si­bly spot­less zoo. When fi­nan­cial ruin strikes, the fam­ily boards a freighter with their an­i­mals and makes for the New World.

Some dis­tance into the Pa­cific, a storm hits and Pi is set adrift with a hyena, a ze­bra, an orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker. Not sur­pris­ingly, some beasts eat oth­ers and Pi ends up alone in the lifeboat with hun­gry Richard.

Early on in the story, Pi learns to avoid mak­ing an­thro­po­mor­phic as­sump­tions about an­i­mals in gen­eral and about Richard Parker in par­tic­u­lar. For the most part, Lee and his com­puter-an­i­ma­tion boffins stay true to this phi­los­o­phy. The tiger re­mains fierce, un­moved and self-con­cerned. But it proves hard not to de­velop a sen­ti­men­tal af­fec­tion for the beast.

Re­turn­ing to heavy-duty com­puter an­i­ma­tion for the first time since the prob­lem­atic Hulk, Lee has elected to layer the film with a mind-al­ter­ing school of su­per­re­al­ism. The tiger and the other an­i­mals are im­pres­sively ren­dered, but you couldn’t say they look ex­actly like the real things. The de­pic­tions of lu­mi­nes­cent mar­itime life and of an is­land throng­ing with meerkats tend to­wards gor­geous prog-rock fan­tasy.

This is all to a sen­si­ble pur­pose. Some­where be­tween sheer fan­tasy and an un­re­li­able ver­sion of re­al­ity, Pi’s fan­tas­tic tale (told by Khan to an un­der­em­ployed Rafe Spall) never en­tirely meshes with the world in which we live. Lee’s hugely imag­i­na­tive use of 3D, which finds ob­jects ap­par­ently ex­it­ing the frame, adds to the sense of cre­ative dis­lo­ca­tion. (In­deed, this is the only film since Martin Scors­ese’s Hugo to have jus­ti­fied the use of that ma­ligned medium).

For all the dig­i­tal flash, how­ever, Life of Pi is chiefly to be rec­om­mended for the punch of its core story. Never mind the cod-philo­soph­i­cal breadth – feel the im­pres­sive emo­tional depth.

Trip­ping the light fan­tas­tic: Ayush Tandon adrift in Life of Pi

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