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The Impossible: Swept Away

by Ethan Alter December 21, 2012 5:58 am
<i>The Impossible:</i> Swept Away

Viewed purely as a ripped-from-the-headlines survival story, Spanish director J.A. Bayona's new film The Impossible is an often harrowing experience, depicting the devastation caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami that engulfed South Asia in December 2004 through the eyes of one family, who are left separated in its wake. On holiday in Thailand when the tidal wave sweeps through, British couple Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three adorable boys -- who are, in order of age, Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) -- abruptly go from lounging about the pool at their high-end resort to fighting for their lives as the current rockets them along. When they're finally becalmed, Maria and Lucas are miles from the hotel, while Henry, Simon and Thomas manage to find safe harbor closer by, and each group believes that the other is likely dead. Henry refuses to abandon all hope, however, and goes hunting for his wife and eldest son at the same time that Lucas is bringing his severely wounded mom to an overcrowded hospital where she joins the ranks of the hundreds and hundreds of people in immediate need of medical attention. Will her husband find her? And, if he does, will she still be alive?

Bayona's previous movie, the 2007 horror film The Orphanage, was a beautifully sustained exercise in atmosphere and tension and he brings some of the same skill to The Impossible, particularly in the tsunami sequence. Always an actress willing and able to put herself in harm's way, Watts endures what must have been one of her most physically demanding roles to date, fighting to keep her head above the brackish water and a firm grasp on her son. This sequence is so well-executed by the cast and crew, nothing else in the movie really comes close to matching it in terms of intensity. In fact, in the hospital scenes that follow, Bayona often tries too hard to goose the tension by having characters unexpectedly vanish or just miss running into each other.

At least the Maria and Lucas material is more compelling than Henry's storyline, which basically involves him abandoning his other two children and wandering around until happenstance brings him to the right hospital. (Well, to be fair, he puts the youngest boys on a truck that's supposedly headed for a rescue stations and asks the other adult survivors to look out for them. Not exactly the kind of choice that wins you any Father of the Year awards, but hey -- the poor guy's grief probably outweighed his judgment in the moment.) It's been so long since I've genuinely impressed by McGregor in a movie and his focused, but lackluster performance here isn't exactly a return to form. It's almost a shame that Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez didn't figure out a way to tell the story exclusively from the perspective of Maria and Lucas, as that's where the real drama of the movie lies.

But the biggest elephant in the room in regards to The Impossible is what can perhaps best be described as its "First World Problem," where the Thai natives are largely reduced to being bystanders in their own national tragedy in favor of white, European stars. (It's worth nothing as well that the actual family these characters are based on hail from Spain, not England.) It's safe to say that this decision is owed primarily to economic rather than artistic factors; in order to secure the substantial funds to make this movie -- not to mention attracting the attention of major distributors -- Bayona likely knew that he'd have to cast globally recognized (and English-speaking) movie stars.

It's not as if he's at all malicious in his depiction of the local Thai population, whose suffering and individual acts of heroism are recognized in small ways. Still, there's something unavoidably off-putting about seeing them pushed to the margins while the more glamorous tourists take center stage. (Left largely unmentioned in the film's climax, probably because there's no good way of bringing it up, is that this family gets to go back to their still-standing home in England if they survive their ordeal. Most of the local survivors aren't that fortunate.) While it may seem unfair to downgrade The Impossible for a creative problem with no readily apparent solution -- the only possible scenario would have been for Bayona to pull an Angelina Jolie, who used her considerable influence to direct a feature about the Bosnian War starring actual Bosnian actor (of course, his name carries far less currency than hers in the international movie marketplace) -- the fact remains that watching this movie is uncomfortable for reasons beyond its subject matter.

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