A film about a shipwrecked Indian boy, lost at sea in a lifeboat with only a Bengal tiger named “Richard Parker” for company.
Many assumed that adapting Yan Martel’s bestselling novel into a two hour film would be impossible, step forward Oscar winning director Ang Lee. Lee has managed to make this project appear effortless, almost as if the story was just waiting to be filmed.
We start our story in Pondicherry, a small French influenced Indian port town. Santosh Patel (Hussain) sets up a small Zoo with his wife Gita (Tabu), together with their two sons Ravi and Piscine, named after a swimming pool.
Apart from being ribbed mercilessly at school for the misspelling of his name, the boys have an idyllic life, albeit learning hard lessons at the zoo, courtesy of their stern but loving father.
Piscine, now self renamed “Pi”, chooses religion almost as his hobby. Already a Hindu, he adopts Christianity and latterly Islam, much to his fathers consternation. “Believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing”, his father simply states. These early scenes are played well, are grounded in reality and set out the underlying spiritual themes of the story. The film gently deflates any religious pomposity, which should also satisfy a modern secular audience
The story is bookended by the older Pi recounting his story to a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall), Pi himself being played by four actors, an excellent Irrfan Khan as an adult, Young Pi by Gautum Belur, early teens by Ayosh Tandon but for most of the story as an older teen, by the quite superb first time actor Suraj Sharma.
Falling in love, Pi is promptly torn from everything he loves as the family emigrates to Canada aboard a freighter, with many of the Zoo animals in the hold. Mid voyage, disaster strikes and the rest of the story revolves around Pi and his companions adventure, as they attempt to survive.
Pi struggles with the elements, his place in the world, the meaning of life and most notably death, yet the story does not appear weighed down with these concerns but manages to relay them in a serious but manageable form. Religion is part of the story and yet is unlikely to offend anyone with or without faith, although perhaps believing in something, is the underlying message.
if you thought that special effects could get no better then be prepared to be surprised. The biggest technical achievement is that one might assume that very few effects were used. Never work with animals, water or children is the directors mantra, here Lee manages all three. It is easy to accept that the tiger is real and the threat to Pi is tangible, as the film progresses.
Not only has the film managed to portray a difficult story it has handled the delicate concepts beautifully. Certain scenes will make you jump, gaze in wonder or consider much later as to the possible deeper meanings. Visually the film is beautiful to look at, notably Pi backlit underwater against a sinking ship or adrift amongst a sea of bio luminescence. This is a film about everything and nothing and as foretold by Pi’s old friend, may make you believe in god. If nothing else, it certainly will restore your faith in intelligent visually appealing film making.
The acting by Suraj Sharma is superb, portraying every emotion in a believable and accessible way. The fact that he would have acted in trying circumstances, mostly against “nothing” as the tiger is mostly supplied by CGI, makes the achievement even more impressive.
Irrfan Khan has a quiet relaxed presence, suited to the story he relays and together with Sharma provides an emotional end to the story. Spall also does doing well in a difficult and mostly thankless albeit necessary role.
Overall, this is a magical yet grounded film, that some may love, some will enjoy and yet may frustrate some. If you are prepared to suspend disbelief to some degree and be swept along with the story, you may not find god but you will have a cinematic experience that you may remember for some time.
A film that is about whatever you decide the film is about, a mirror perhaps to your own life experiences.
Parable, shaggy dog (or tiger) story, whatever it represents, this is unquestionably one of the best films of the year.