Sunday, February 10, 2013
The Impossible Movie Review
Sometimes you have to attempt to erase your preconceived notions of a movie before you go in to see it. With The Impossible, Spanish director J.A. Bayona’s retelling of the true story of a family of five that survived the devastating 2004 tsunami in Thailand, I had plenty. The trailer did the film no favors as far as I was concerned. I made two predictions when I saw the trailer: 1) the film would be an appalling depiction of that terrible tragedy for its focus on a rich white family that made it through while hundreds of thousands of poor dark-skinned people died around them; 2) the film would be a cloying and phony emotional tug at the heartstrings, cynically designed to extract false tears from the audience. I was wrong on the second, but absolutely dead-on accurate on the first.
Let’s start with the second and say that all movies are manipulative. They are designed that way. They are supposed to, at the very least, manipulate you into caring about the protagonist. After that, they manipulate your emotions, whether it’s surprise, fear, sadness, elation, or apathy. What I’m looking for are examples of manipulation that doesn’t reveal itself as such. I don’t fall for big orchestral swells to tell me when it’s time to feel a lump in my throat. I want the story to do the work. All the other stuff – the effects, the sets, costumes, music – should be the finishing touches. If your story doesn’t work, no amount of sappy music can make up for it. And yet The Impossible, a movie that seems like it would be a prime example of all that crap that makes me ill when I see a movie, generates genuine emotions through real human tragedy and a simple story of a family that miraculously made it through that tsunami and found each other in the end.
Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play that married couple, Maria and Henry, upper class Brits on holiday in Thailand. He’s a high-powered businessman. They live in Japan. She’s a non-practicing doctor, taking time off to care for their three boys, aged 3 – 13 and named Thomas, Simon, and Lucas. In real life, the family was from Spain. For obviously commercial reasons calling for the use of recognizable English-speaking movie stars, their identity has been changed to white and English. It’s a crass alteration of facts, but one I won’t entirely begrudge screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez (from a story by María Belón) and the producers for making that decision. Had they made the film in Spanish with a Spanish cast, the film would have played only in Spain and Latin America. You wouldn’t have even heard of it. In the interest of letting as many people worldwide as possible see the story, they could have done worse.
As to my first prediction, I have to say there’s something irresponsible and uncomfortable about a movie that focuses, to the almost universal exclusion of the non-white people deeply affected by the tragedy, on a white family that survived. The excuse that this is true story is no excuse at all. Of all the stories there are to be told, how can this be the most moving? And even if it is, the fact that director J.A. Bayona almost completely ignores all secondary local characters – people who exist in the film either to show the rich white folks the amenities in the hotel or to help them on their journey following the tsunami – is sort of inexcusable. There are hospital scenes that depict only white Europeans suffering. To some extent I understand why the people who Henry and Maria interact with in their separate stories are mostly European. We tend to conglomerate with people with whom we are familiar and who speak the same language. But this film has a stunning lack of Thai characters.
The Impossible works in spite of this, though certainly not because of it. It hangs firmly in the hands of the capable performances of McGregor and Watts, who give pain and heartbreak fresh and honest voices. There is a scene in which McGregor has to call his father-in-law and tell him that he doesn’t know where Maria and his eldest son are. His breakdown in this scene is the first time we see him succumb to the emotional tragedy of the fact that they are most likely dead and it is played perfectly. Watts spends a significant portion of the movie on a hospital gurney, but before she and her son reach safety they have to wade through knee-deep water that is littered with dangerous and jagged metal and glass, all while wearing just their bathing suits. Maria has to be the emotional center for her son in the belief that Henry and the other two boys are most likely dead. And she has to do this while dealing with a giant hole in her calf. As Lucas, the eldest son, the newcomer Tom Holland ably holds his own against McGregor and Watts.
For what it’s worth, this movie drew tears from my stone cold heart. I don’t necessarily view that as an automatic endorsement, but it was surprisingly touching. While I think overall it does a disservice to countless victims and the families of victims, this is a finely crafted piece of filmmaking.