If you have read Yann Martel’s acclaimed 2001 novel “Life of Pi” it’s likely that your first thought wouldn’t be about the terrific film it would make. After all, the greatest conflict in the story involves survival at sea after an epic storm, and the personality conflict involves a 16-year-old boy called Pi (Suraj Sharma) and a fearsome Bengal tiger who goes by the odd name of Richard Parker.
You would need to think again, since Ang Lee has made the story into a remarkable film that adheres quite closely to the novel. Part of his success is due to the marvels of modern technology, but more to his vision of worlds hitherto unseen by most of us. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda combined with Martel’s vision is a wonder and a marvel to behold.
Much of the film is taken up with the ordeal endured by the boy and the tiger, stranded together in a lifeboat for an unbelievable (but you will believe) 227 days. This situation is explained in the first part of the film, where we meet the grownup Pi (Irrfan Khan) being interviewed by a writer (Rafe Spall) as he tells his story of trial by sea and tiger.
Pi Patel is the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India and the plot begins with the decision to move the whole operation including animals to Canada. En route their ship sinks in a storm as realistic and gripping as any we’ve seen, and the only survivors are Pi Patel and that tiger.
The journey that ensues is one of incredible beauty as well as white-knuckled terror, and the beauty comes out on top – by fathoms. Water becomes a sort of art form, sometimes as a mirror of everything above the surface and sometimes as a perfectly clear medium where wondrous forms of life can be seen as if the water were air.
Under and overlying the action is Pi’s spiritual journey of faith, and that aspect is beautifully presented and at times deeply moving. The most vivid impressions, however, come from the visual impact; the sea in all its moods and mystery, the tiger, part-flesh, part-computer and totally real and alive in all his ferocious glory.