Eddie Izzard has a comic routine about mass murder. The British stand-up comedian riffs on the idea of our response to multiple losses of life; he relates how we’re sickened by one life being taken in cold blood. We’re moved to tears by a few lives lost. A school-shooting which cuts short young lives numbering in the 20s or 30s makes us first numb with shock, then we’re angry as well as tearful. At some point higher than that, and he argues the precise number isn’t a universally fixed one, we find ourselves moving from negative emotions to a kind of blunted awe which can border on the impressed. Presented with millions lost at the hands of a dictator we become not so much approving as admiring a kind of sick skill, awed by the efficiency it must have taken to get the deed done when we ourselves can scarcely make it out the door on time and have breakfast. It’s a brilliant routine, simultaneously achingly funny and chilling. It’s both at the same time because on some important level it’s true.
A film-maker taking on an event in which countless numbers lose their lives faces this kind of problem in order to make it all emotionally affecting rather than leaving us stuck in a kind of pitch-black awe. The key is to personalise it – make us zero in on an affected couple or family. From there, when the focus occasionally pulls back to lines of body bags or mass graves, we have a context for grief and a route into tragedy. This is the approach chosen by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona in The Impossible, the first major film to tackle the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. How do you portray an event on film in which killed over 230,000 people in the space of a few hours? You focus in on the remarkable story of one family. Bayona is well equipped for this – his previous film, 2007’s low-key horror-chiller The Orphanage is no masterpiece, but works well because it focuses in on just a few people to deal with a sinister theme.
He also knows how to handle shock and fear, which stands him in good stead for The Impossible. We join a rich British family flying into a Thailand beach resort for a Christmas holiday from their Japanese home. We get brief glimpses of their lives, a sense of their relationships – sincere, squeezed by work pressure but still what they’re really about. Then the tsunami strikes, and it’s all about the suddenly split family fighting to survive and find each other – if they’re still alive, of course. The recreation of the tsunami itself is claustrophobically, terrifyingly brilliant. It’s almost too much – which is of course just right. For some it will be too much – but if some of us have been numbed by the numbers involved, then we need a sharp slap. The tsunami sequence itself gives us that. By keeping it personal – focusing on the fear and physical pain of a few – we start to get a sense of the scale of what has happened. The post-tsunami landscape is also brilliantly recreated – it’s eerie and laden with fear, shying short of the tasteless suspense a director with his roots in horror may have been tempted to. Also brilliant are the performances – the children’s are nothing short of staggering; Naomi Watts fully deserving of her awards nominations and Ewan McGregor portrays a man descending from control of his life to total fear and passivity, then back into action again, with great bravery and simplicity. The scene where he emotionally crumbles into hysterical, sobbed, conversational updates on a hurried phone-call home is heart-breaking and not easily erased from the memory. Nor should it be.
So far, so good. The film has two big problems, though. One structural, the other ethical. The clue to the structural issue lies in the title – trying to avoid plot-spoilers it’s still fair to say the film actively points up the remarkable, the impossible in the family’s story. This is subtle at first – why does one tree fall, another not? Why is THAT car carried by the water’s current, the other not? Is that scene which includes the shillouette of a flailing elephant hallucination, dream or reality? What about that boy? Is he even real? So it goes, so it builds. Of course, the resolution relies on coincidence. That’s fine, because coincidences do happen in events of such terrifying scale. Statistics, laws of averages dictate that they must. Attribute to God, chance or human spirit if you must, but they do happen. So they’re not impossible. If they were impossible, they wouldn’t happen. In The Impossible, by the time the should-be-impossible-but-in-fact-just-improbable occurs, you’re ironically numbed to a kind of happily relieved disbelief.
The ethical problem is different. Bayona and his team have changed the nationality of the family from Spanish to English. That’s an understandable, if sad, economic decision so he doesn’t have to make a ‘foreign language’ film. Doubtless other details are changed for narrative and practical reasons. That’s film-making. The ethical problem is that in a diaster which affected 14 countries around the Indian Ocean the victims we see are primarily white Westerners. Locals are angels of mercy and Good Samaritans, not suffering, dying, hoping, grieving, reuniting. The devastating, catastrophic local loss of life is in the occasional pull-back, the journey round the wards. Despite that The Impossible leaves us with the distinct impression that this is Western tragedy in a hotter climate.
There must have been a way round this; either a remarkable story to tell from local people or simply a selection of stories. Those choices aren’t taken, though, and that’s simply lazy. It’s not that this story shouldn’t be told; it’s just it needs more context, more local texture with it. Bayona gets away with it by cinematic slight of hand – so terrifying is his tsunami recreation, so astonishing is the story he has to tell that we don’t have time to think about what actually happened around us. The Impossible is improbable, not impossible. It’s very, very moving in moments – I was on the verge of tears on several occasions. There’s much to admire. It’s just sad, and in the end inexcusable, that a film like the masterful Beasts Of The Southern Wild has an outlook of more justice than this one. That was an entirely fictional film which gave a voice to the voiceless. The Impossible gives a voice to those with a megaphone, holidaying in a paradise staffed by the poor – a paradise dependent on those with the megaphone for jobs and income. Tragedy hits rich and poor alike – but the former get amplification and insurance.
I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com. To think more about issues of justice and inequality, check out Beasts Of The Southern Wild and have a read of When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting The Poor..and Yourself