Yann Martel’s 2001 book, a bestseller that has since morphed into a passionate global cult, concerns an Indian boy trapped for 227 days at sea in a lifeboat with a starving Bengal tiger. How do you transform the literal and metaphorical sides of the tale into cinema? You call Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning director of Brokeback Mountain, who turns the book into a magnificent and moving film. Lee’s use of 3D to tell the story is absolutely thrilling. Like Hugo, from Martin Scorsese, Life of Pi puts 3D in the hands of a worldclass film artist. Lee uses 3D with the delicacy and lyricism of a poet. You don’t just watch this movie, you live it.
Every sight and sound is astounding, especially when you consider that the tiger is a digital creation. That puts enormous pressure on the actor who must react to a beast that isn’t there. To play Pi, Lee chose the inexperienced Suraj Sharma, then 17, who returns the favor by giving a fine, fearless performance that consistently rings true. Pi’s journey is perilous, from the moment his zookeeper parents (Adil Hussain and Tabu) leave the serenity of their lives in Pondicherry, India, and board a ship to Canada to start a new life. Pi, who claims to be Hindu, Christian and Muslim, finds his faith tested when the ship goes down – in a scene of beauty and terror – drowning everyone but Pi, a zebra, an orangutan, a shrieking hyena and the tiger named Richard Parker for the hunter who captured him. Sharing one lifeboat reminds Pi of a lesson he learned on land about the mistake of treating a wild animal as human. The code of survival of the fittest leaves Richard Parker alone on the lifeboat, forcing Pi to shift for himself on a raft he ties alongside.
Working from a fluid script by David Magee (Finding Neverland), Lee frames the film with the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his story to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall). Khan (Slumdog Millionaire, The Namesake) is a supremely gifted actor who uses his expressive eyes to suggest a haunting and brutal alternative to what we are seeing. His presence is crucial in this PG-rated film that shields a family audience from the full extent of Pi’s torment. And yet Lee, with the indispensable help of cinematographer Claudio Miranda, invades the mind through eyes that are dazzled.