24 Lies a Second: 3.14159 and Other Animals

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3.14159 and Other Animals

I have an open offer of a bet that anyone who knows me can take up. The terms are as follows: together we will walk down the high street of any small town in England and visit every charity shop we pass along the way. For every such shop which contains a copy of Yann Martel's Life of Pi amongst its second hand stock, you give me £5. For every such shop from which Life of Pi is completely absent, I will give you £15. I am confident I will make money on this, for Martel's book does seem to be one of those which was avidly purchased but not much retained (or, one suspects, finished). Nevertheless its combination of popular and critical success means that a film version has appeared, directed by Ang Lee.

Now, this movie has been released in glowing colour and stereo sound, with 3D also being available should that really be your cup of tea. I have to take all the foregoing for granted, as, in an attempt to foster the success of small independent cinemas across the UK, I went to see it at the Island in St Annes. I saw The Hobbit again there in their main screen and found it perfectly acceptable, but in screen 3 for Life of Pi all was not well: there was some kind of issue with the aspect ratio, the colour was washed out, the sound was a bit iffy and the auditorium too bright. All of this made long sections of the film look and sound about 35 years old (which is sort of ironic as this is when it's set). I'm all for helping the little guy out, and admittedly it was only £3 a ticket (special New Year offer) – but come on, Island St Annes. You have to do better than this.

Moving on from the latest instalment of New Cinema Review: in Lee's film Rafe Spall plays a fictionalised version of Martel himself, a blocked writer who has been directed to talk to middle-aged Asian academic Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), as Pi apparently has the world's most extraordinary story to tell him. What follows at first is a series of charming, fabulist anecdotes about someone collecting swimming pools, Pi quite wisely choosing to shed his birth name of Piscine Molitor Patel and doing so by a wholly remarkable method, his adoption of three different religions at the same time, and so on.

Then Pi's father, a fiercely rationalist zookeeper, decides to relocate the family to Canada, taking all the zoo animals with them to sell. En route the ship encounters a savage storm and is lost. Pi, aged 16 (and played by Suraj Sharma), is the only survivor, finding himself adrift in a lifeboat with only a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a Bengal tiger for company, and most of the rest of the film concerns his various battles with nature and despair, with little hope of returning to dry land and an unpleasant death in the offing from any number of directions. (I had a similar experience on the boating lake at Butlin's Filey in 1983, although come to think of it there wasn't a tiger involved that time.)

Life of Pi's combination of narrative quirkiness and peculiar formal challenge instantly made me think that this was the kind of film entirely up Danny Boyle's street – perhaps this would have been a little too obvious a choice for him, given he's already done the remarkable life story of an Indian youth, as well as a struggle for survival with only one real character and a single location involved. Anyway, he spent most of last year either pepping up Baron Frankenstein or wondering at aisles, and so the job went to Ang Lee. The golden thread running with utter consistency through Lee's filmography is that his films have virtually nothing in common with each other – this is the guy who's done the costume drama literary adaptation, the martial arts arthouse favourite, the one about the gay shepherds, and the first version of Hulk, and so one shouldn't be surprised by anything he chooses to do.

Personally I find I can take or leave Ang Lee's movies – they all look good and are clearly the work of someone thoughtful, but quite often I find I can't really engage with the story for whatever reason. I thought Life of Pi was one of Lee's better films, although as a technical achievement more than anything else. You would think that an hour-plus of someone stuck on a raft or in a lifeboat with a hungry tiger would quickly get monotonous, if not actually boring – but the film remains engaging and nuanced throughout, with a distinct sense of a developing narrative (though I did wonder why the lifeboat never filled up with tiger dung). Sometimes it is tense, sometimes moving, sometimes funny: and this is largely down to Lee's direction and a very assured performance from Suraj Sharma – given the prologue and epilogue sections of the film are very voiceover-heavy, Lee employs this device surprisingly sparingly for the main part of it. Richard Parker the tiger appears to be a fully CGI-ed creation, and an impressive one – presumably the original footage features a lot of Andy Serkis in a striped onesie.

The main section is also surprisingly light on obvious symbolism or Big Questions, especially given that the lengthy prologue seems to be going out of its way to raise serious issues concerning faith and religion, and our relationship with the natural world. The fact that the animals in the lifeboat are not remotely narrative-friendly or anthropomorphised in the slightest is a crucial one and seems to me to be central to the film. At one point this seemed to me to be becoming a deeply and openly allegorical story, with all sorts of parallels to different religious stories – but also one about what it means to be a human being trying to make sense of a complex and chaotic world. The film doesn't really make much sense as anything else, so it's just as well that it's quite effective in those terms (although there's a sequence where Pi encounters a very odd island inhabited solely by meerkats that I'm not sure completely works – thankfully none of the meerkats try to sell him insurance, though).

This is a well-made and striking film about what it is that distinguishes us from the other animals of the world: and seemed to me to be suggesting that it's our capacity for faith that makes the crucial difference. I'm not sure I agree with that myself, but Life of Pi is interesting and enjoyable enough whether you agree with its central thesis or not (or even with my idea of what its central thesis actually is). Probably not quite strong enough to pick up the big awards in the looming gong season (with the possible exception of Suraj Sharma's performance), but a classy and serious film, worth seeing in a decent theatre.

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