‘The Impossible’ (2012), or ‘Let’s Make Everyone British’.

7 Dec

The Impossible movie posterHas director Juan Antonio Bayona achieved the unlikely? Has he created a disaster film that avoids being a complete disaster on film? Could this be what the title of the movie refers to?

To answer those questions in order: almost, kind of, and if only, because that would actually be quite clever. This is a film that can be viewed in one of two ways: on one hand, it’s a harrowing tale of an innocent, unsuspecting family whose lives are torn apart by the South Asian tsunami of December 2004. On the other, it is a nonchalant, borderline crass subversion of the pain, trauma and destruction of the indigenous Thai people and their property.

‘The Impossible’ tells the true story of a Spanish (though Anglicised here) family whose holiday plans are scuppered in the wateriest way possible. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts are heads of a typical English upper-class family, with three pre-pubescent sons in descending order of adorableness, who travel to Thailand for Christmas celebrations. The seaside resort, which is bursting with equally bourgeois, non-Asian foreign nationals, is bulldozed to ruin by the waves. Watts is swept away with the eldest son, while McGregor remains at the debris of the hotel with the younger two.

What follows is a series of disaster movie tropes and some really rather good acting from Watts and the older son (played by Tom Holland). Their scenes together are easily the dramatic highlights of the film – Watts plays the heartbroken, ailing mother perfectly, while the previously-snotty Holland steadily improves. McGregor doesn’t actually have many lines until about 100 minutes in, and even then his performance is a bit over-the-top and not very convincing. Dotted with many nail-biting ‘almost!’ moments of dramatic tension, the script is decent and several sections set in the relief hospital are choreographed quite well.

The film batters you over the head with beautiful imagery, immersive sound design and very impressive CGI. The cascading waves, and the swirling mass of rubble, vehicles and cadavers are all expertly animated. This did little to mask the lack of actual Thai characters who were not restricted to the fuzzy background – I counted four who actually had lines. And they were all very minor; they included the hotel’s concierge, a nurse, a truck-driver and an uncomfortably racially-dubious indigenous ‘medicine man’ type man.

One aspect of the film which irked me probably more than it should have is the camera work. The film is not meant to be ‘found footage’ or anything of the like; there is nobody ‘recording’ the events which unfold. Shaky-cam makes another vile appearance, though it is subtle, which defeats the purpose really. It also features at least one ludicrous example of lens flare when the camera looks at the sun… I simply don’t understand this. It works fine in films like Cloverfield, but here it just doesn’t make sense.

At best, ‘The Impossible’ is a moving, heart-wrenching tale of a loving family’s brutal and unfair separation. At worst, it’s an offensive if well-made story of how a rich white family lost their luggage. It all depends on how cynical you are; whether or not you can ignore the potentially offensive undertones, you’ll probably tear up regardless. Go see it and decide for yourself.

Simon.

[Written for The Student Standard]

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