David Bishop on the controversy surrounding The Impossible…
One of the biggest releases currently in cinemas is The Impossible. Based on true events, it’s a harrowing depiction of one family’s attempt to survive the devastating Tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004. Unfortunately, it has attracted a great deal of controversy. The family, on which the film is based, is Spanish. However, they are played by Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast, all of whom portray a white, middle class, British family.
The Impossible has been criticised for reducing this incomprehensible disaster to the story of this one family, ignoring the countless number of people (most of whom are foreigners to American and British audiences) whose lives were devastated by these events. On his radio show, Mark Kermode raised the interesting question of whether this would have been as big an issue if the family had been played by Spanish actors. Maybe, but it certainly would have been a safer choice for the filmmakers.
However, is this oversimplification of the film justified? While the central family remain the focus, the film does not ignore the countless other families that were affected. Henry, played by Ewan McGregor, meets up with other victims who are also searching for lost loved ones. While Henry is lucky to find his family, others are less fortunate. The Impossible doesn’t belittle these events by giving everyone a happy ending, and even deals with the issue of survivor’s guilt.
Of course, this still doesn’t change the fact that we’re made to sympathise with an English family rather than a Spanish one. Sadly, the fact of the matter is, English-language films make more money. If the cast had been Spanish, using the Spanish language, The Impossible wouldn’t have made anywhere near as much at the box office. It’s easy to see this as a cynical money-making exercise typically done by Hollywood, and this would be hard to argue against. But if a film makes more money, does that not mean more people have seen the film?
It’s an important story and one which is powerfully told, and the more people who see it, the better. If raising awareness of this kind of tragedy through entertainment means more Westerners will take action the next time it happens (whether that’s donating money or providing hands-on aid), then, surely, this can only be a good thing.
To really convince audiences of the tragedy and horror, the film needed to stage the disaster and devastation in a convincing manner. The opening scenes are very upsetting to watch and so they should be. By using practical effects, and avoiding the cheaper CGI option wherever possible, these scenes take on a heightened sense of realism. You really feel the impact of the wave and it makes for very uncomfortable viewing.
To do this kind of effect, and to do it justice, the film required a decent-sized budget; the kind of budget that’s reserved for mainstream cinema. Therefore, in order to recuperate this cost, the studio needed to get the film in front of a mainstream audience. The decision to film this in the English language makes financial sense, as well as giving the filmmakers the means to tell the story properly.
Let’s also remember that the film’s director, Juan Antonio Bayona, is himself Spanish. While we don’t know if there was any studio pressure to change the characters to English (unlikely), this surely gives the decision slightly more credibility. Wouldn’t he have walked away from the project if he objected?
If he had objected it certainly doesn’t show, as Bayona delivers a film populated by properly-written characters (of many nationalities). Not only are the main family compelling and engaging, but the supporting cast feel genuine and believable. Everyone from the doctors and nurses to the Taiwanese natives are imbued with a real sense of humanity. There may only be incidental roles but every character helps to tell the story, giving it added depth. This isn’t a film that ignores other cultures and ethnicities. Instead, this is about how race and ethnicity mean very little in the wake of such an incomprehensible disaster. With that in mind, does it really matter what nationality the protagonists are?
Over time, the controversy surrounding The Impossible will disappear. When that happens, we’ll be left with a powerful and emotionally honest depiction of these tragic events. In the end, that’s all that matters.