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Impossible is something

Sunday, January 27, 2013
Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in The Impossible.

The Impossible
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
Starring Ewan McGregor,
Naomi Watts, Tom Holland



The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of December 26, 2004, is one of those events about which everyone can recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. (I happened to be visiting the United States at the time, and woke up to it on television on a wintry Boxing Day.) Over 230,000 people in South-East Asia died in a tragedy of such magnitude that it was almost beyond belief: how could so many lose their lives in mere moments?



Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible, a finely-wrought drama based on actual events, doesn’t seek to answer this question, nor does it attempt to take on the vast scope of the tsunami across the many countries it ravaged. Instead the movie portrays one family’s ordeal on that horrific day and immediately afterwards, locating a remarkable and moving story of separation and survival within a tragedy of cataclysmic proportions. If you have small children, you will probably hug them a little tighter after seeing this film.


At the centre of the movie are the Bennetts, a young family, British and blonde, on holiday at a beach resort in Thailand. The father, Henry (Ewan McGregor, who has finally graduated to playing paterfamiliases), works for a multinational corporation in Japan; his wife Maria (Naomi Watts) is a doctor whose decision to put her career on hold to raise their three boys is one signifier of the family’s relative wealth. There is some talk at the outset of Maria going back to work, an idea Henry doesn’t seem to care much for.


There isn’t any lingering over character development or setting up of the action. After a few obligatory scenes of frolicking on the white-sand beach and snorkelling on the colourful reef, the tsunami hits, and the Bennetts are unceremoniously scattered by the great tide of water rushing inland. These are absolutely gripping scenes, fluidly handled, going from expansive overhead shots to ground-level shots to underwater close-ups seamlessly. The special effects look great—that is to say, realistic.


At this point the movie follows the fortunes of Maria, who manages to stay together with Lucas, her eldest son (Tom Holland). My goodness, but does Maria suffer. Her body is tossed about, her flesh is ripped, at one point she throws up some horrible black stuff—and yet she somehow keeps going. With all the award ceremonies taking place it’s a scandal that Watts hasn’t gained any significant recognition for her role. If only for sheer physical endurance she deserves a gong.


Yet while Maria suffers, her son shines. For a considerable stretch of the film’s action young Tom Holland gamely dominates the screen, as Lucas helps lead his mother first to safety and then to hospital, where, at her insistence, he makes himself useful helping reunite separated families. Meanwhile Henry, who has managed to hold on to the two other boys, is desperately searching for his wife and eldest son. I won’t give away the ending, not that there’s anything to give away: the film’s title, for a start, fairly ensures that.


One word I’ve refrained from employing in this review is “miraculous.” This is not out of any personal reluctance to categorise the astonishing chain of events—based on a true story, remember—portrayed in the film as an act of God. It is the film itself that staunchly refrains from indulging in the spiritual. Apart from one scene where the youngest Bennett boy, Thomas (Samuel Joslin), has a conversation with an elderly woman (a cameo by the great Geraldine Chaplin) that can only be described as cosmic, no prayers are said, no deity is invoked in The Impossible. Compare this with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, a complete fiction, in which Pi attributes his unlikely survival to divine will.


The Impossible has been criticised for telling the story of a white western family, when most of the tsunami victims were not. The facts reflect movie-industry reality. Typically, the bigger a film’s budget, the more famous (for which read bankable) its actors have to be. This film is based on the true story of a Spanish family, and the film is a Spanish production—that is, most of its key crew and funding are from Spain. The lead roles were originally to be filled by Spanish actors, but given the considerable money involved, the decision was made to cast two Hollywood A-list stars instead. The business of film being what it is, any alternative would have been, simply, impossible.


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