Film review: Life of Pi

Life Of Pi

(PG) ***** 

Director: Ang Lee. 

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall.

LABELLING a book as "unfilmable" seems to be merely a way of baiting ambitious directors and writers into taking the challenge.

Such "unfilmable" literary landmarks as Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, Naked Lunch, American Psycho and, most recently, Cloud Atlas, have all made the leap to the big screen with varying degrees of success.

The much-loved Man Booker Prize-winning Life Of Pi almost instantly received that label too upon publication in 2001 - how the hell do you make a compelling movie about a boy being stuck in a boat with a Bengal tiger for 227 days?

Fortunately for audiences, director Ang Lee begged to differ with the "unfilmable" tag. To be fair, the ability to create believable computer-generated animals on the big screen gave him an advantage over directors who were weighing up the possibility of shooting the film even five years ago.

But still, even with the technology, a narrative confined to a lifeboat with just two characters - one of which can't speak - is not an easy thing to make engrossing on the big screen.

Surprisingly, Lee lets the book do the work, with great success. The script sticks closely to Yann Mantel's novel, using narration effectively and keeps the jaw-dropping ending almost verbatim.

That ending has been a bit of a problem for some people, but I can't fault it. It's powerful yet succinct, and it lingers, keeping you thinking about the entire film for days. This is the sign of a good film in my book because eventually it will lure you back to watch it again, and repeat viewings will bring a fresh perspective, unravelling new layers of symbolism and depth every time.

Visually, Life Of Pi is stunning. The 3D is immersive, whether it be in a terrifying storm or a seemingly endless flat ocean or coming face-to-face with the tiger. The tiger, by the way, looks incredible and largely real - best of all, it's an utterly believable character.

There is more to the film than just the lifeboat - although that is the bulk of it - and the first act is intriguing as it sets up Pi as a unique, thoughtful and intelligent young man, while the framing device of Pi being interviewed by an author is not intrusive and actually helps keep the story grounded.

The novel's themes of faith, hope, survival, belief and the power of a good story shine through satisfyingly, as does the subtle humour that helps alleviate the heavy emotional weight of the story.

Lee not only pulls off the visual and narrative qualities, but in first-time actor Suraj Sharma he has uncovered a new and natural talent who is nothing short of a revelation as Pi. With so much hinging on his performance, the young Indian shoulders the film admirably, managing both the physicality and internal nature of the role wonderfully.

Bringing Life Of Pi to the big screen was always going to be a difficult task. Lee has gone above and beyond, executing the job with near flawless precision. It is a film you will want to watch again and again.

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