The Impossible

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in The Impossible


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


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Impossible – at Amazon





6 May 2013-05-06

Naomi Watts in The Impossible

The Impossible (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The Spanish have an appetite for mutilation. Look at bullfighting, or the bloody effigies of the crucified Jesus Christ in their churches. And though this film is entirely in the English language, it has a Spanish director, writer and production money behind it. It’s very much a Spanish film.

So, parking my misgivings about a drama wrought from the 2004 tsunami in the bay marked “Anglo Saxon squeamishness”, let’s turn to the story of the nice family who copped the big wave while on holiday in Thailand.

It’s based on a Spanish family’s true experiences and does at least put a human face on the tragedy. Though human faces are pushed to one side when director Juan Antonio Bayona unleashes the monster wall of water after the film has only been running a scant number of minutes in scenes that completely eclipse Clint Eastwood’s tsunami drama, Hereafter.

Ewan McGregor and, particularly, Naomi Watts work like donkeys to keep this from being an exercise in shouting and, against all expectation, they succeed. The Impossible, bizarrely, successfully, is more an actors’ film than you might expect, more than your standard disaster-movie SFX spectacle.

 The Impossible – at Amazon


The Facility (Momentum, cert 18, DVD)

A bunch of people who don’t know each other spend the weekend at an isolated clinic where they are to be guinea pigs in the trial of an unknown drug. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it happens, and much of it is memorably nasty in the debut by writer/director Ian Clark, whose variant on the aseptic white room thriller (see Cube) gabbles through its set-up but then settles down nicely for the running-around screaming bit that these sort of films invariably work their way towards.

The Facility is well cast, knows how to play with genre expectations, has a couple of amusing thoughts about the older generation and their bloody recreational drug-taking – kids these days, eh – and marks Ian Clark out as a man to watch.

The Facility – at Amazon


Gangster (High Fliers, cert 15, DVD)

A Canadian film about one of the country’s more notorious hoodlums, Edwin Boyd (the film’s title in some areas), a WWII veteran driven by some shellshock and a fair amount of greed into becoming a bank robber.

Scott Speedman is Boyd, Kelly Reilly is his wife, Brian Cox barrels on to lend a bit of much needed weight, and the whole thing has been shot in that vaguely sepia tone achieved by turning the colour knob down a bit (ok, a lot).

Which is pretty much a metaphor for the whole film – an efficiently told tale, nothing more.

Gangster – at Amazon


Midnight’s Children (Entertainment One, cert 12, DVD)

Sneaked out with no fanfare as if it were a guilty secret, and on DVD only, tellingly, this adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel about the birth of modern India says a lot without saying very much at all.

The story – two children, one rich, one poor, switched at birth – is familiar enough. Its preoccupations – race, class, gender and the return of the empire – mark it out as a cultural product of the 1980s, as does the literary style, with its digressions into magic realism.

Which possibly is making it all sound much more interesting than it is. Because what is strange about this film is that it manages to have it all – charm, humour, breadth, budget, depth, politics.

It’s an epic, in other words, or should be, but its fleetingly episodic nature makes it impossible to get a handle on it. Perhaps the decision to get the book’s writer to do the screen adaptation wasn’t such a wise one.

Midnight’s Children – at Amazon


The Tower (Entertainment One, cert 15, DVD)

Now here’s a nice little curio, a complete crib from The Towering Inferno, done in Korean, set in a huge double skyscraper on Christmas Eve, where a succession of well introduced characters – the cute kid, the pretty young woman, her nervous beau, the stuck-up bitch, the dodgy builder, the fireman – are subjected to disaster movie mayhem.

The acting is about as over the top as it gets, particularly among characters further down the cast list, but this is a highly effective film, beautifully made, with some fabulously staged set pieces. There’s even a “die you callous bastard” Richard Chamberlain moment, which warms the cockles.

Tower – at Amazon 


Quartet (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut isn’t quite what you’d expect from one of the world’s most famous Method actor mumblers. Unless you expected a drawing-room drama peopled by British actors of cut-glass diction.

The trailer had me reaching for a noose but the film itself, set in a home for retired musicians, is a guilty pleasure. But then it has Maggie Smith in it, and her gift for comedy is well to the fore in a script about an ageing diva (Smith) being coerced into performing Rigoletto by three other residents – Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly.

Sensibly, Hoffman at no point lets us see the stars singing or even miming – since there is no way in hell that they would be plausible – and has packed the supporting cast with real singers of a certain age. Which really gives this gentle wallow an air of authenticity, an ideal accompaniment to Ronald Harwood’s script, which examines age, decay and death in a genteel unfussy fashion. Cocoa probably mandatory.

Quartet – at Amazon


Billy Liar (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tom Courtenay again, in one of the films that first made his name, and the reputation of the British New Wave of the early 1960s.

An adaptation of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s play about a penpusher at a funeral business whose fantasy life both helps him escape the daily grind and prevents him from properly breaking free of it.

The film gave a breakthrough role to Julie Christie, as the free spirit Billy is fixated on, and this 50th anniversary restoration also reminds us of the beauty of John Schlesinger’s widescreen, deep-focus cinematography, which dresses the drab industrial settings with a wash of monochrome glamour.

Billy Liar – at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2013