Re:View – ‘The Impossible’

The Arts

How do you make a film about kindness and decency without tipping into schmaltz? One way would be the approach taken by Juan Antonio Bayona and his writer Sergio G. Sánchez, who have based their story on the true events surrounding one family in Thailand during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed almost a quarter of a million people in eleven countries, principally Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.

Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as the real life doctor and her husband who, together with their three sons, are upgraded to a beachfront holiday villa at Christmas. When the wave hits they are around the pool, torn apart and flung inland. What follows is less about who will live or die and more to do with the boundless strength of family ties and the need for survival.

Eerie presentiments of the disaster abound. The director (who made the superbly directed ‘The Orphanage’) gives us the jitters from the outset as the arriving plane is buffeted by high winds, and loud noises make us start. But nothing prepares us for the force of the wave, which bone-shakingly blasts through the resort and seriously wounds Marie, the wife, leaving her oldest son (Tom Holland) in charge. Holland’s performance is athletic and affecting – it helped that he’d played Billy Elliot onstage, clearly – as he tries to find the other members of the family.

It’s at this point that the film is most interesting, when the son and mother have to decide whether to take care of themselves first or help other people. They choose the latter, and set about reuniting separated children and parents. There’s very little touchy-feely mysticism here – aside from a brief but moving scene with Geraldine Chaplin – because the film is about strength of character, and as such owes its cliche-free linearity to the fact that it’s a true story with the real family on board for regular consultation throughout its making.

The series of unfortunate coincidences that lead to the family members missing each other in the chaos of hospitals filled to their ceilings with the wounded feels entirely believable, the kind of thing that you only realise has happened when looking back over an event. There are no surprise twists, just a straightforward sensitive retelling of the days after the catastrophe, a testiment to human tenacity and innate goodness that makes you grateful you’re alive.

The Thai authorities appear to have sprung into action much more quickly than the ones in New Orleans after Katrina, but a disaster of this scale is still hard to comprehend. At the film’s Q&A afterwards Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts talked about the help they had from the incredible Channel 4 documentary, which pieced together the entire timeline by assembling phone footage from different continents to form a single linear narrative.

5 comments on “Re:View – ‘The Impossible’”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    I’ll search out the trailer. The film is due to open here this Christmas season. Seeing a “feels good and right” film would be nice for a change. Enough with the warm suds approach. I found watching the real thing on TV was quite horrifying. The way the water came in with nothing much stopping it and carried everything off. Whew.
    Of course, we just had that happen in New Jersey, New York and elsewhere along the east coast. If it hadn’t happened at night, then there’d be more footage being replayed. The number of people who died in their homes – usually their “safe” basements from drowning or caught on the house’s ground floor is amazing and sad.
    On a related note the NYTimes yesterday had a science story on a sixth century tsunami in Switzerland that was caused by a huge landfall. It created sudden violent flooding along a 40 mile stretch of the shores and went on flattened part of the then village of Geneva. And there have been other such tsunamis on the lake. And it could happen again! Who would have thought: a lake tsunami. Another today would be very bad with so much basin land and building right on the water.

  2. glasgow1975 says:

    Not to downplay what just happened in NY, but that was a storm/hurricane, not even the first or worst, people were given warnings and the death toll I think is a few hundred.
    The Tsunami was a huge wall of water, hitting with little or no warning that killed a quarter of a million.
    OK, maybe I have downplayed it 🙂

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    You are right, but it was a “perfect storm” as several things (3 or 4)had to come together at once to cause what happened. I have been through a number of bad hurricanes on Long Island, but this was very special and the subways have never been flooded as they were. Water level is rising and storms are getting worse. Read the three novels of Kim Stanley Robinson on global warning. They are good and the science is solid. Cheers.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    We had acquaintances survive that tsunami. We knew they were going to that part of Thailand with their 5 year old boy. When the news came through we started haunting their fish & chip shop (he had a much bigger set of investments but he ran this one himself) & had prayers said for them but were relieved to see them open on the proper date. The thing that had bothered their son as he was being snatched up from poolside was that the water had taken his shoes. I just realized that that boy is now a teenager! During the layover in Tokyo they bought him new shoes with flashing lights. A friend of a friend lost his partner in the wave. There are people from all over with connections to that earthquake.

  5. glasgow1975 says:

    It’s a great trilogy, I’ve read it Dan 😉

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