A “true story”. Signalling their poignancy, these two words linger on the screen after the rest of the opening blurb has faded. The Impossible is a curious popular cinematic trompe-l’oeil, designed to capture the tragedy of the real event, but necessarily predicated on knowledge of the real-life disaster in order to create the very cinematic veracity that would, by the film’s generic nature, always evade it. On the one hand, the film feels like a particularly well-made apocalypse movie, complete with astonishing special effects, visceral cinematography, an involving soundscape, improbably noble characters, and a preposterously miraculous ending. That it is based on a true story, however, makes these familiar generic features by turns awe-inspiring and disturbing.
Following Juan Antonio Bayona’s second film, The Impossible follows one middle class Western family on holiday in Thailand when the devastating tsunami hit fourteen countries in south-east Asia on Boxing Day 2004, killing around 230,000 people. Based on a real family’s experiences, the film documents the intertwined stories of businessman Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor), his wife, a doctor named Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three little boys Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Prendergast), as they all attempt to find one another in the aftermath of the disaster.
Some reviews have been critical of the decision to focus on just one family, particularly one that is not most representative of the majority of the tsunami’s victims. In terms of its focus, though, this strategy allows the film-makers to humanise what otherwise is unimaginable given the scale of the disaster, and its choice of family arguably makes it more meaningful to the majority of The Impossible’s intended audience. The more uncomfortable dimension of this decision to examine one white family’s struggles against a backdrop of much wider suffering in mostly post-colonial countries is at least acknowledged in Maria’s otherwise curious choice of pool-side holiday reading: an unspecified novella by Joseph Conrad, gesturing not only to the water-based terrors of Typhoon (1902) but also to “the horror, the horror” of Heart of Darkness (1899).
However, what is more problematic is the fact that the Alvarez-Belon family, on whom the Bennett family are based, are Spanish rather than British like their fictional counterparts. When a photo of Quique and Maria Alvarez, accompanied by their sons Lucas, Tomas, and Simon, appears during the closing credits of The Impossible, the viewer might well feel cheated about the authenticity of the “true story” they have just watched unfold. Initially, Bayona defended this casting decision: “this family had to be kind of like a universal idea. I mean, they’re kind of like a white canvas where everybody can project themselves”. His defence is troubling. Falling prey to the same kind of problematic assumptions that the Daily Express might indulge with alarmist headlines like “One in 5 Britons will be Ethnics”, Bayona seems to present a Caucasian middle-class British family as being somehow devoid of nationality, ethnicity, or social class. The Bennetts are no better placed to tell a “universal” story than the Almarez-Belons. When pressed on this issue by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, however, Bayona admitted that market forces motivated this decision: “I would have loved to tell this story with Spanish actors. We tried, but it proved impossible to raise funding without international actors”. Bayona’s compromise is perfectly understandable. In order to tell the story in the most powerful and involving way, he was required to cast certain types of star. This is how popular cinema has always worked.
While the ten-minute pre-tsunami sequence at the start of the film features some clunky, hamfistedly-delivered dialogue, this problematic casting decision is otherwise rewarded by magnificent performances from McGregor, Watts, and Holland. Combined by with some scenes of stomach-churning bodily horror and direction that puts the viewer squarely in the place of the characters, The Impossible is an apocalypse movie that has genuine pathos.