On Boxing Day 2004, a tsunami struck the coasts of south-east Asia which killed almost 250,000 people. The ocean consumed vast tracts of land, destroying anything in its path and leaving a legacy which many areas have yet to fully recover from. The Impossible is the tale of just one of the affected families: a vacationing European couple and their three sons whose idyllic beachside holiday in Thailand soon became a battle for survival.
Cultural commentators have had a field day with the film, pouring scorn on its ‘whitewashing’ of history, its attempts to ‘cash in’ on the tragedy and the Hollywood ‘varnish’ applied to the story. Chief among these detractors is David Cox, who disparaged not only The Impossible’s alleged racism, but also the movie industry’s general white insularity. Movie critics, meanwhile, have praised the film’s visceral action and powerful storytelling. Who should we believe?
The tsunami strikes barely five minutes into the film – and is a film-making tour de force. Eschewing CGI, director Juan Antonio Bayona employed models flooded with real water and cleverly constructed sets with which to recreate the horror, confusion and carnage – and boy does it deliver. As characters are tossed around the waves they impact violently with the debris and detritus which floats through the soupy waters with them, wounds bleed, water is swallowed and a claustrophobic sense of panic takes hold of an audience placed directly amongst the action. Bayona’s camera focuses intently on just two characters: Naomi Watts’ Maria and Tom Holland’s Lucas.
This mother and son are cast adrift from the remainder of their family, desperately trying to stay together in the swirling waters as Maria bleeds profusely from several serious wounds. Far and away the strongest section of the film, the relationship between the two characters is portrayed superbly. Watts is a consistently strong actress and does a sterling job here, but she’s acted off the screen by young debutant Holland.
In a mature performance of enormous range and emotion, Holland convinces completely. Able to switch almost at will from whining child to authoritative adult, he’s the glue which keeps the film together and through which much of the story is told. It would be no surprise at all to see him garner awards nominations.
When the film strays from the mother/son drama, its focus alights on the family’s other half: father Henry (Ewan McGregor) and the two youngest children. Having miraculously survived the tsunami themselves, their section of the story is concerned with reuniting the two disparate parts of the family. The storytelling here is far more formulaic, but is rescued from cliché thanks to the strength of McGregor’s acting. One scene is simply stunning: a simple phone-call home which is some of the best screen acting I have ever seen. That said, there hackneyed moments in the immediate aftermath of the call, and one excruciatingly tortured star-gazing metaphor which stuck in the throat a little.
So, in terms of drama and spectacle, The Impossible is a qualified success: a hugely powerful and emotionally engaging film which occasionally lapses into sentimentality and predictability. Given the gruelling nature of its content, this levity can be more than forgiven. Perhaps the more important questions concern the film’s portrayal of its non-white characters. Has Bayona attempted to airbrush the Thai people out of his film? Is their plight marginalised and ignored? And is his film racist?
For me, the simple answer to these questions is ‘no’. The Impossible is not a documentary and is not bound by any rules regarding objectivity and balance. Rather, it is a true story about a real family and their experience of the tsunami – which Bayona was inspired to make when he heard them discussing it in a radio interview.
To make an all-encompassing film about such a huge event would be practically impossible. The nature of storytelling demands that we focus tightly on a small number of characters with whom we can identify and empathise – something which is achieved wonderfully here. Perhaps it would be worth asking the director why he chose to transform the central characters from Spaniards to Britons? Maybe the director and financiers felt a Spanish family wouldn’t gain an audience? That they needed the cache of big names like Watts and McGregor? Either way, it’s a far more pertinent question than whether the film is any way racist towards the Thai people whose role it represents alongside its central protagonists’.
David Cox’s central criticism appears to be that The Impossible “concentrates not on the plight of the indigenous victims but on the less harrowing experiences of privileged white visitors.” Of course it does – it’s their story. Should this story not be told because they are white and rich? Does that devalue the human drama? Of course not.
Representation of any other characters is sketchy at best – all the characters, be they tourists or locals, remain unnamed. They are all the background for the central story. That’s not to say that the Thai people are ignored, however. Instead, they are portrayed entirely accurately as brave and heroic people suffering horrific circumstances in the best way they know how. Cox doesn’t want to “see non-whites patronised with background roles as saintly ciphers” but with “mainstream parts as three-dimensional protagonists in what is, after all, their story.” But it isn’t their story, is it?
That said, the death and desolation which characterised the Khao Lak coastline in the immediate aftermath is starkly (and regularly) depicted: flattened businesses and housing, massed ranks of corpses, injured and homeless Thais. These are not explored in any detail, but are treated with dignity and respect – and any viewer with an ounce of commonsense can see that. This is a film, not a comprehensive account of a human tragedy.
Interestingly, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is released on January 18th. This is a film about slavery, users the ‘n’ word over a hundred times and features a morally ambiguous black character who betrays his own people. I’m confident it won’t be racist in any way – I’ll be interested to see if David Cox agrees…