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Film Review: Life of Pi

5th December 2012

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There are some books that are so universally loved, original and unexpected that the purist reaction is that they can never be made into films.

Life of Pi is one of those books.

How can a story that is so heavily led by spirituality make the leap from page, where we dream up its intense colours (and its hidden meanings) ourselves, to screen – where, largely, we are directed in what to see?

Whether it really is “the book that can’t be made into a film” is not the only question that Life of Pi presents us with.

We already expect it to be visually spectacular. A zoo in French India, an apocalyptic storm, a seemingly limitless Pacific Ocean – if it wasn’t it would have immediately failed. But will it be more than this? And will it be the film that finally convinces us of the merits of 3D?

Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel – a zookeeper’s son (named after a Parisian swimming pool) from Pondicherry who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat after the cargo ship taking his family to a new life in Canada ditches in the Mariana Trench. His surviving companions are a ravenous hyena, Orange Juice the orang-utan, a zebra with a broken leg - and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Pi’s previous life in India, his 277 days at sea and his ultimate story of survival are recounted to a writer in Canada in the present day.

So, Pi’s story is a story about storytelling (just go with it) which is deeply rooted in questions of faith, God and human endurance. You might even call it a dialogue on near-madness. Can the film live up to these often difficult themes? Director Ang Lee is going to have a tough job.

Let’s start with the 3D aspect.

Without a doubt, it works. The proximity of the animals in Pi’s father’s zoo, the depth of the Pacific, the immediate danger of Richard Parker – all are made much more imposing through the visual that 3D offers. Later, as Pi is beginning to hallucinate after months at sea, the 3D offers a dreamlike quality in its blending together of the water and the sky. This sub-aquatic world, so silent and unreal after the buzz of a life lived in India, is like a hallucination in itself.  “Everything fragmented,” says Pi as he lies listless on his raft. “Can’t tell dreams from reality anymore.”

More than just a beautiful film? Certainly. In Pi’s solitude and through the almost apocalyptic moments that define his experience, we are reminded that this is almost a narrative about hell – but more so about human faith. That the film is stunning adds a lot to its appeal – but it isn’t the most important thing, and it is the human story that stands out.

The script, at unexpected moments, offers light relief – and humour despite Pi’s plight manages to break up what otherwise could have been a bleak, if beautiful, affair.

It is also a feat that Lee has managed to depict the long period of one character at sea whilst keeping the tension high. With the smallest of mistakes, this seminal part of the film could have edged on being too drawn out – but it isn’t even for a second.

Will Life of Pi live up to expectations and satisfy fans of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize winning novel? Yes. Yes, it will.

Life of Pi is released on 20th December. 

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