Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast
Length: 114 minutes
In revisiting the Indonesian tsunami that took over 230,000 lives, Bayona confidently engages with ethically weighty subject matter and produces a touching picture. But it is not altogether a humbling one. Despite the underlying pathos of The Impossible, its narrow storyline and a cast dominated by White actors leaves one in need of a more ambitious picture that might capture the disaster’s wider impact. In the most poignant scenes, The Impossible yet stands as a very moving portrayal of the more universal themes of parental anxiety and human affection.
The film is based on the lives of the Spanish Belón family who were on holiday in Thailand when the tsunami struck in December 2004. They have since called The Impossible “beautifully accurate.” Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) and his wife Maria (Naomi Watts), along with their three children (introducing the outstanding Tom Holland), are aboard a plane bound for the Orchid Resort Hotel on the Thai seaside. In the opening lull before the storm the five are framed as a likeable bunch with a clear affection for one another. All the while we sense the Bennetts are on the verge of something awful thanks to some pastiche gothic foreshadowing which seems to have leaked in from Bayona’s earlier horror film, The Orphanage.
When catastrophe hits the three main characters truly come to life. Heart-rending performances from Watts, McGregor and Holland pick up the slack where the writing falls down. It is just because they are so convincing that the decision to change the nationality of the Belón family from Spanish to British for the big-screen won’t offend. In fact, it was María Belón who chose Watts for her role, which has since garnered an Oscar-nomination.
Visuals also hit the spot. The arrival of the first tidal wave is spectacular but not gratuitous, evidence of attention to source material. Maria is sunbathing in the resort. After a close-up on her spindly fingers laid across a throbbing pane of glass, we witness the sunny poolside games devastated by a wall of water that seems to move in real-time, knocking down petrified tourists and dividing the family. This rapid transition from delicate bliss to destruction crystallises María’s Belón’s memory of the event: “it felt like the Earth was coming apart but everything looked perfect.”
A softer spectacle occurs when Maria, anesthetized on an operating table, dreams she is rising through seawater towards an undulating golden light, reminiscent of Aronofsky’s artsy film about love’s conquering of death, The Fountain. Never misplaced, stunning scenes provide a relief from the barrage of tear-jerking moments which a viewer of The Impossible must dutifully sniffle through.
The plot could have had a wider scope, been more inventive, but a lot of punch comes from straightforward dramatic irony. While we can see that all members of the Bennett family have survived the tsunami, the unwitting Henry grimly combs through name lists, hospital wards and body bags for his wife and eldest child, Lucas. This culminates in a montage of agonising near-miss encounters with his son in an overpopulated hospital.
As a star-gazing Geraldine Chaplin says to little Simon Bennett (or perhaps the middle-child Thomas, you won’t remember the difference), “it’s impossible” to know which stars have already died. Since this is said on the quiet tropical sea-front, looking up at a night sky unpolluted by city lights, the line confounds the darkest of parental fears with Henry’s isolation from secure lines of communication and systems of identification, even from the familiar nexus of the family home. Bayona can be applauded for tending to his target audience.
The Impossible is about one family’s fight against unforgiving odds. The formula has generally been received well. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian says, “in the end I found honesty and compassion in The Impossible.” As the Bennetts make a safe flight home the resolution is comfortingly cyclical. The parent’s earlier domestic quibbles seem insignificant, and Lucas enjoys a warmer bond with his mother Maria. However, she and the audience must take one final look across the sea-drenched waste below and share in a kind of survivor’s guilt. The closing scene therefore treads a fine line between victory and grief, but ultimately evokes María Belón’s life-affirming sentiment that “the tsunami was an incredible gift. I embrace life. My whole life is extra time.”
Only one mistake injures any gravitas The Impossible possesses. This is the underrepresentation of the Thai people, who made up the greater part of the tsunami’s victims. There is one chance encounter with a local community who come to Maria’s aid. While there are no subtitles to help us comprehend their Indonesian (or Acehnese), she seems grateful. Just like the primitive synergy between Maria and a young foundling who find sanctuary in the treetops after the surge, simple gestures of kindness suffice.
With The Impossible, Bayona responds to the altruistic role played by the Thai community in 2004: “I decided to portray them as more than victims, from the point of view of the gratitude” felt by the tourists. But the result is that the local Thai village stands as a haven, conspicuously intact. The villagers themselves remain unscathed after an event which seems to have affected only Westerners even though it occurred on their doorstep. The locals are subsequently both unintelligible and in the background. For this reason the keen notion of loss and grief dwelt on by The Impossible remains, for all its compassion, a fumbled one.