The Impossible

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

23 January

Shaanxi earthquake, 1556

On this day in 1556, the world experienced the deadliest earthquake on record. At 8.0 (possibly 7.9) on the magnitude scale (the successor to the Richter scale) it wasn’t the biggest quake the world has seen but it did kill the most people, largely because many of the people who inhabited that region in China lived in loess caves.

Loess (probably from the same English root as the word “loose”) is a wind-blown silt/clay mix held together loosely by calcium carbonate. It is very easy to excavate but is also highly susceptible both to collapsing and to disappearing under a landslide.

This is exactly what happened on the morning of 23 January 1556 when the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, Shandong and Gansu were struck by the quake which destroyed an area 840 kilometres (520 miles) wide.

The cave dwellers bore the brunt of the death toll, which killed 60% of the local population, but in the city of Huaxian, near to the epicentre, the earthquake destroyed every single building and killed hundreds of thousands of people too. In total it is estimated that 830,000 people died.

The Impossible (2012, dir: Juan Antonio Bayona)

How do you make entertainment from human misery? It’s the Schindler’s List conundrum that film-makers solve in a variety of ways.

In the case of this drama following one happy family through the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 the film-makers have decided on a three-track strategy.

Track one is the “fraught with prior knowledge” drama. As we follow rich Ewan McGregor, his lovely doctor wife Naomi Watts and their three kids – from her worries about flying, to concerns about the kids swimming in the pool at the lovely Thai resort they’re staying at, – we know that there’s a tsunami coming (we’ve seen the trailers). We know that these concerns are nothing compared to what’s approaching. The Impossible’s track of anxiety is very similar to what Paul Greengrass did in his 9/11 drama United 93.

Track two is the full-on disaster movie, a storm of special effects and CG after the tsunami hits, devastates the resort and throws all of the family into the raging water, separating them. As the film starts to focus on Watts and her eldest child (Tom Holland) it asks the disaster movie question – who will live, who will die?

Track three is the aftermath, the sort of drama that you often see in war movies, in field hospitals, as suffering souls are tended, some dying, others just making it, confusion everywhere. Will separated loved ones be reunited? Will injuries become too much to recover from? When will some sort of order be restored?

In The Impossible, in other words, there’s no shortage of drama, and types of drama.

The film is based on a real story, that of María Belón, a Spanish doctor on holiday in Thailand with her family at the time, but is as much based on all those YouTube clips and news reports that showed that wave – not huge, just awesomely relentless – rolling in from the sea, over the beach, then onwards, through the shacks on the beach, through the hotels, out beyond the hotels onto the highways, then on, on, on, on, right out into the countryside. Clint Eastwood’s atypical Hereafter caught its chaos well. Director Juan Antonio Bayona catches it better.

It’s worth remembering that Bayona showed a different though similarly powerful command of place and mood in The Orphanage.

As for the claim that this is a racist film, because its focus is on a white family struggling to survive a devastating event that consumed so many people with brown skins, point taken, though I don’t think the wall of water discriminated either way.

And, more cynically, this is how you make entertainment from human misery.

Why Watch?

  • Naomi Watts’s Oscar-nominated performance
  • The cinematography by Oscar Faura – of The Orphanage fame
  • It was shot in the resort where it happened, gruesomely
  • A standout performance by Tom Holland, aged 11

The Impossible – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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