The Impossible (2012)

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Image via athenacinema.com

This is the film about the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, centred around a couple in Thailand, played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, and their three sons. It starts off well, with a dramatic and effective recreation of the tsunami that puts you right in the centre of the action; feeling what it might be like to struggle for survival and what choices you would make about saving others. From there it descends into a mawkish melodrama that is heavy on violins and implausible dramatic twists.

The opening moments of the film emphasise this is a true story and a bit of research reveals it is based on a Spanish family’s experiences (and also that this is a Spanish film although it feels like a generic Hollywood film). Other than the basic facts – that they are a European couple with three boys who were caught by the wave in a resort at Khao Lak and their respective fates (which I will not divulge here) – I suspect that much of the narrative and all other characters are fictional.

It’s a shame really as there must be so many rich stories to tell about a disaster that killed around 280,000 people, more than 8,000 of them in Thailand, and devastated such a large region. The Impossible makes it seem like those most affected were white Europeans; the hospitals are full of them and the roads are littered with them, dying and injured. In reality only a quarter of those missing or killed in Thailand were tourists and not all of these people would have been white.

The Thai people are on the periphery of the story and mostly voiceless. They are the first into the disaster zone, dragging people to safety and providing comfort but without words or much sense of sophistication. There is a Thai nurse at the hospital but she is portrayed as kindly but clueless, the hospital system seems primitive, filthy and incompetent. I think there were only two speaking parts played by Thai people and they probably had only a few dozens words in total. Pondering this film the next day I also realised that it failed the Bechdel test, even though the central character is female and it was about a disaster that didn’t discriminate.

Most of the film is taken up by members of the family trying to find each other and this is where the implausibility sneaks in. There are lots of reasons for them to become separated, to just miss seeing each other, to find each other in miraculous ways. There are also a few interesting additional characters – the young boy Daniel, the man searching for his wife and child, the old lady in the mountains – but the lack of comment about their fate at the end leads me to believe they were created for dramatic and emotional effect.

The worth of this film, I think, is in the first 30 minutes. As a parent, it is excruciating to empathise with Maria (Watts) as she struggles to remain afloat amidst the maelstrom and decides what to do as she sees her son floating by. Within a few minutes, her whole world has been upended and her qualities, as a mother and a human being, are put to the test. Watch it until the bit where you find out what’s happened to her husband and then you don’t need to watch any more. You’ll know how it ends.

Streamed on Stan and also available on DVD.

Bechdel test – fail
1.5 stars

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