Having just seen The Impossible – director JA Bayona’s fact based movie about a family’s struggle to survive and be reunited following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami – I am now officially calling time on what has become lazy cinematic shorthand for “look, this film really is a true story”; namely photos/footage of the real people at the end.
This cliché has become particularly irksome because every film is a true story – at least for the two hours I am watching it. Suspension of disbelief immediately is replaced with suspicion when I see the real people, because: 1) They aren’t as good looking as Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts (or whoever) and 2) I suddenly find myself wondering how much of the film was contrived for dramatic effect. Certain elements in the finale of The Impossible definitely feel like they’ve been retooled for optimum cinematic tear-jerking, even though until I saw the photograph at the end I was quite prepared to buy the story as presented. So please, enough is enough. Stop ruining perfectly good dramas by insisting the audience believe you in such a heavy-handed manner. It worked for Schindler’s List, but just because Spielberg did it first doesn’t mean you should.
All that said The Impossible is a surprisingly good film that hasn’t been well represented by the trailer, which makes it look like Oscar-bait, triumph-over-adversity saccharine. In fact, it’s a pleasingly tough, emotionally gripping watch with genuine trauma and terror in the vivid tsunami sequence. The harrowing depiction of the subsequent injuries and hellish confusion amid overworked hospitals all works very well, in spite of one or two narrative dead ends.
As usual, the cynical liberal left can be relied upon to question the decision to tell a story about this disaster centring on a white family on holiday rather than the indigenous population, but this is certainly a powerful tale well worth telling. In the lead roles, Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are both very good (McGregor hasn’t been this good for some time), and there is an interesting cameo from Geraldine Chaplin at one point. However it is the children – Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast and particularly Tom Holland – who make the biggest impact.
From a moral and spiritual perspective, this extols kindness and compassion amid the worst of circumstances, and although undeniably bleak, the film is ultimately cathartic and uplifting. The Impossible isn’t going to change the face of cinema, but it is a very solid piece of filmmaking that does exactly what it sets out to do very well.