The Life of Pi - review

An extravagantly decorated cake of a film with nothing inside but the wisdom of a fortune cookie.

The Life of Pi (PG)
dir: Ang Lee

Ang Lee is the eclectic’s eclectic, a Taiwanese director who has ranged freely between English period romance (Sense and Sensibility) and Chinese wartime espionage (Lust, Caution), martial arts swashbuckler (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and gay melodrama (Brokeback Mountain). In his 3D adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi, Lee surprises us once more: I would never have suspected he could make something quite so facile.

The lion’s share of the screen time is given over to a tiger and a teenage boy stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean. The lad is Piscine “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma), while the tiger, incongruously named Richard Parker, belongs to Pi’s father, who is transporting his zoo animals from India to north America when their boat is struck by a typhoon. Lee is nothing if not a director who knows how to wring every drop of tension from a set piece, and he peaks early in Life of Pi with a storm sequence that finds within terror a dislocated beauty. The underwater shot of a zebra paddling past Pi in the submerged ship, with the doggedness of an afternoon swimmer completing his laps, is so bewitching it hardly matters the trailer spoiled it for us months ago.

Once calm descends, Pi must simply survive. Viewers nostalgic for the innocent charms of Disney’s The Incredible Journey will find little succour. The film focuses squarely on the practicalities of how one might remain alive while confined to a lifeboat with a ravenous tiger.

Like Avatar, this is a movie that couldn’t be realised until the technology was available: you would get through a few crew members trying to extract from a real tiger the sort of performance given by a computer-generated one. But Lee overestimates the effect of his visual coups. The animals suffer in certain shots from that lack of heft that remains the Achilles heel of CGI. The seascapes and horizons have a deliberately synthetic, storybook quality but the marvels that pepper the voyage – a berserk wave of flying fish that whip the sea into a froth, or a majestic whale looming out of the ocean – feel self-consciously spectacular. Then there is the use of 3D. There’s a nice eerie effect when the camera gazes up from the ocean bed at Pi swimming so that he appears to be floating in the sky but the film’s colours are fatally dulled by the grey tints on our 3D specs; I kept peering over the top of mine to see how ripe the cinematography would look without them.

The late Michael Crichton once told me that he had been downhearted after seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that watershed moment in CGI, because he knew there would no longer be any barriers to what could be conjured up on screen. The dream, I suppose, would be that other aspects of the film-making process would be fortified: screenplays might become more complex, the camerawork innovative, to keep pace with technology. If this is the future, Life of Pi is a disastrous advertisement. David Magee’s screenplay is hamstrung by the banality of the points in Martel’s novel about the intersection between storytelling and faith. The film begins with the adult Pi promising he has a tale that will make anyone believe in God. It ends with a twist – well, more of a mild kink – that provides a new definition of anti-climax. The impression you take from Life of Pi is that of an extravagantly decorated cake with nothing inside but the wisdom of a fortune cookie.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle