Edinburgh was celebrating hogmanay three days beforehand, and I was there, looking down into Princes St. gardens as bands such as The View and Bwani Junction welcomed in 2013. Today, the stage was still being put away. Music is all well and good, but the best way to start a new year is going to see a really great film. I've heard much about Life of Pi, how Yann Martel's novel of the same name was always deemed unadaptable, focussing as it does on an Indian teenager stranded in a lifeboat with a tiger. There is the famous film-making cliche that says you shouldn't work with children, animals or water. All three of these should be totally impossible to control fully. Therefore, it would be easy to understand if any film that was adapted from such a novel would merely be a show-off piece, more interesting in demonstrating how brilliant the film maker is at making films than telling the story.
I wasn't expecting what I got. Pi's backstory, shown in the first section of the film, plays out like a rather poignant comedy drama. His story about the origin of his name and how he confronted the bullies who teased him about it is surprisingly funny, and the older Pi, chatting to a wide-eyed Rafe Spall, comes across as rather witty and wise. The conversation then turns to religion, as Rafe queries about Pi's story, which, he has been told, will make him believe in God. Pi describes himself as a Catholic Hindu with Islamic tendencies, as he had fascinating experiences with each of these faiths in his younger days. It surprised me that a film with such a blatant religious message was given such a wide release, but I'm glad it has. Whilst I don't see myself as religious at all, this aspect certainly added another layer to the film, one that is particularly deep.
This whole underlying theme runs through the rest of the film, through a frankly astounding scene in which a ship full of exotic zoo animals sinks, a nasty last-one-standing between all the creatures who made it onto Pi's lifeboat after the disaster, and Pi's efforts to tame Richard Parker, the tiger who he finds himself going through the rest of the journey with (there is an interesting reason why Martel originally chose that name, if you fancy googling it). It's the sort of film that I would like to just sit in a room alone watching for some period of time, trying to figure out all the different aspects to it. That's the sort of film I like. The ending leaves you more curious.
Ang Lee clearly doesn't get too caught up in his 3D, and it never even tries to overtake the story as the centrepiece of the film. However, this doesn't disqualify it as one of the most masterful uses of 3D I've seen. The scene used in the trailer, in which an enormous whale bursts out of an ocean iridescent with jellyfish and leaps over the lifeboat really is a spectacle to behold in 3D. And far from being infuriatingly difficult to work with, every scene in which Lee focusses on the water Pi is surrounded by, be it during his early days in the pool or afloat in the Pacific, is filled with beauty rarely seen in a blockbuster like this. This is the film to go and see if you want to give your eyes a big thanks for all the work they've done over the years.
I am unsure about the casting of Gerard Depardieu, who gets top billing according to Vue, but has the most pathetically small role in the film as a cook on board the ship Tsimtsum (this name, incidentally, was not a random choice for Martel either). It feels unnecessary, an attempt to get a big-name star in the credits when the real standout performance is clearly given by debut actor Suraj Sharma, who never makes you doubt that he really was in a lifeboat trying to tame a tiger (he wasn't, incidentally). Ang Lee has shown that he is very able to show the unshowable, and show it well. This is a film to stimulate the mind as well as the eyes, and, at times, to give you goosebumps.
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