The meaning of life, according to Pi, tackling Tolstoy in Anna Karenina

by Mark Burger

Director Ang Lee’s assured screen version of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel Life of Pi begins with one of the loveliest opening-credit sequences in recent memory, and its visual splendor only intensifies as the story progresses.

A tale of faith and fate, Life of Pi is an existential parable that in other hands might have been cumbersome and high-minded.

But by leaving the particulars of its irony and symbolism open for the viewer’s individual interpretation, the film succeeds where oth- ers might not. Irrfan Khan plays the adult “Pi” (Piscine Patel), who recounts his life story to an inquisitive young writer (Rafe Spall). As a youngster growing up in India, Pi (played first  by Gautam Belur and then Ayush Tandon) always had an affinity and fascination for religion. He considers himself a Hindu, a Catholic and a Muslim — and his explanation for this may seem rather simplistic, yet it’s effective enough in this context.

Pi’s family owns a zoo, but when they decide to sell off their belongings and relocate from their homeland of India to Canada that Pi’s greatest, most tragic and most triumphant adventure would occur although at great personal cost. During a terrible storm at sea, the ship sinks and Pi (now played by appealing newcomer Suraj Sharma) is the only human survivor, cast adrift in a lifeboat. But he’s not alone, as some of the zoo animals — including a Bengal tiger called “Richard Parker” — have managed to climb aboard the lifeboat as well.

Like a latter-day Robinson Crusoe, Pi attempts not only to survive, but to maintain his sanity and to co-exist with the ferocious feline, which he tries to train. After all, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there’s not much else to do.

Life of Pi is very much a director’s film, and Lee is unquestionably an imaginative, visionary talent — as well as an avowed humanist. (One need only take a cursory look at his previous credits, including Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain, for which he won an Oscar, to ascertain this.) Despite the relative limitations of the film’s primary lifeboat setting, it adroitly avoids becoming static or boring. Nor, perhaps most importantly, does it become preachy.

The latest version of the oft-told Leo Tolstory classic Anna Karenina , adapted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright, stars Keira Knightley in the title role, that of the 19th century Russian woman whose passions becomes her undoing.

This rendition unfolds as a theatrical experience, with the curtain rising and falling on certain scene changes and the actors moving in choreographed tandem. At various times, the film feels operatic (not inappropriately, given the story) and at others it feels balletic. Tolstoy purists may be taken aback by such an approach, but if nothing else it lends a freshness to the proceedings. Credit Wright and Stoppard for doing something a little different.

The illicit romance between Anna and the younger Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) seems a foregone conclusion as soon as they first lay eyes on each other, but neither can foresee that this rapturous union will eventually lead to ruination — particularly for Anna. Love can conquer many things, but against societal pressure and class structure it’s an uphill battle, one that cannot be fought without severe and devastating consequences.

Taylor-Johnson isn’t bad as the lusty but callow Vronsky, but he’s no match for Knightley nor Jude Law, very good indeed as Anna’s betrayed husband Alexei, who seethes and suffers this very public humiliation yet knows that retribution is imminent. His attempts to warn Anna go unheeded — as well he knew they would.

Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Olivia Williams, Shirley Henderson and Emily Watson are among the familiar faces in the supporting cast, some appearing only very briefly.

On the technical front, there is the sumptuous cinematography by Seamus McGarvey and production design by Sarah Greenwood, as well as an appropriately expressive score by Dario Marianelli.

This marks Wright’s third collaboration with Knightley, following 2005’s Pride and Prejudice (which earned four Oscar nominations including one for her as Best Actress) and 2007’s Atonement (which earned a total of six nominations with a win for Best Original Score). The two work well together and, despite her admitted dislike in recent interviews for wearing corsets, Knightley has a classical elegance that makes her well-suited to period pieces such as this one.

Her Anna is alive.

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