tsunami suffering

katerina sakkas: juan antonio bayona’s the impossible

Naomi Watts, Tom Holland,  The Impossible, photo Jose Haro, © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC.

Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, The Impossible, photo Jose Haro, © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC.


An estimated 230,273 people died as a result of the tsunami that followed. In Thailand, where Juan Antonio Bayona’s film The Impossible is set, the death toll is estimated to have been 8,212, including at least 2,464 foreigners.

Returning to these recent, dreadful events, The Impossible focuses on the experiences, based in reality, of one family of foreign tourists. The real family, Spaniards María and Enrique Belón and their three sons Lucas, Simón and Tomás, transform, in a move to attract English-speaking audiences, into Britishers Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) Bennett, and their sons—also Lucas, Simon and Thomas. This adjustment of the family’s nationality, in addition to the film’s focus on Westerners rather than the suffering of the indigenous population, has seen The Impossible criticised by some reviewers for ‘whitewashing’ a disaster that overwhelmingly affected the developing world.

This is somewhat harsh. Given the film’s specific nature, the large number of tourists affected by the tsunami in Thailand, and the close involvement (and claims of fidelity to her experience) of María Belón, it seems at least feasible that this family, located in a tourist area, would not have been privy to the magnitude of suffering among the Thai population. There is certainly a wider issue concerning the sort of luxury tourism in developing countries that sees wealthy Westerners effectively segregated from real life in the places they travel to. Perhaps the relative absence of Thais in the film merely holds a mirror up to this sort of experience.

In his first feature, The Orphanage (2007), Bayona demonstrated his skill in representing family bonds as a vital part of the narrative. Much of the tension in this uncanny yet ultimately moving ghost story was invested in the depth of maternal feeling. The relationship between mother and son is also at the crux of The Impossible, Bayona’s second feature film. Naomi Watts is the film’s focal point, appearing in more extended close-ups—most of them showing pain of some sort—than any other member of the family.

There are moments when, in order to convey the extent of the crisis, the camera moves away to create aerial views of endless rows of body bags. But the film doesn’t dwell on the spectacle of destruction. The aim is to give us a very personal angle on an horrific event that is difficult to comprehend in its entirety.

While the horror genre often uses the suffering female figure in a distanced, fetishistic way, The Impossible dwells on Maria’s bruised and swollen face so we feel her pain. There’s never a sense that the family’s survival was a walk in the park. When Maria and Lucas are thrown around by the surging waters of the retreating tsunami, The Impossible drives home the helplessness and fragility of human life when confronted with a force such as this.

A lyricism and sense of the unfathomable runs through the film. It’s there in the ominousness which builds on the day before the disaster, prefigured in small, inconsequential events (a page falling from a book, tourists swimming underwater). It’s also there in a nighttime scene where an older woman (Geraldine Chapman) talks to one of the younger boys about the impossibility of telling which stars are already dead (an obvious resonance with the film’s title). The Impossible’s most poetic sequence occurs in Maria’s uncanny, dreamlike memory of the moment the tsunami hit. We see the monstrous surge of water crash into the glass greenhouse she crouches against; her unconscious body submerged among debris and corpses. Then, from beneath, we observe her rise to the surface, spread-eagled and silhouetted against the light. This hint of the ineffable makes The Impossible poetic as well as dramatic, and with convincing performances from the actors, prevents the film from cloying.

Given the ‘miraculous’ survival of this family of five, when so many others died, it would be easy for smugness to intrude, yet though the family leave together in a plane bound for Singapore, there’s nothing pat about this film’s ending. Relief is there, of course, but also exhaustion and sadness, conveyed, unsurprisingly, through another close-up of Naomi Watts’ tear-stained face. There’s a sense of the open-ended nature of natural disaster: the feeling that none of us is completely safe. The film closes with a shot of the vast ocean.

The Impossible, director Juan Antonio Bayona, screenplay Sergio G. Sánchez, story María Belón, director of photography Óscar Faura, editors Elena Ruiz, Bernat Vilaplana, music Fernando Velázquez, production design Eugenio Caballero, art direction Dídac Bono, Marina Pozanco; Australian distributor Hoyts/Studiocanal

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 17

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 February 2013