Impossibly Impossible

No doubt about it, The Impossible is a well crafted film.  The Tsunami is impeccably recreated, the acting is superb, and the script orchestrates intermittent tears with the deftness of a klezmer clarinet.  I hated it.
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Don’t get me wrong.  I admire the filmmaking.  Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) has crafted a remarkably terrifying horror film out of a natural disaster, and he has captured the aftermath with paralyzing clarity and alarming accuracy of detail.  He has harnessed a physical violence no Freddy Kruger film could possibly find.  And that is just what troubles me.

What is the point?  That we should respect and fear Nature?  Okay, I agree.  That tourists should stay away from Thai beach resorts?  What other recourse if you want to avoid the risk of being swept up in this kind of maelstrom?

I wonder if Bayona might have made that point more effectively if he had written more about the aftermath of the ordeal, more about the emotional violence every one of those survivors must surely have suffered in the months, now years, since the tragedy.

This is no Titanic or Ship of Fools with disparate characters thrown together and forced to recognize one another as fellow passengers on a death-bound express.  And therein lies, for me, the rub.

This is one family’s terrifying wrestling match with Fate.  We know precious little about them, and that’s all we need to know. Mom Maria (Naomi Watts)is a non-practicing doctor and Dad Henry(Ewan Macgregor) has a job in Tokyo; she has a hankering to go back to England, and he is ambivalent.  Their three boys Lucas, Simon and Thomas (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergast) are pretty typical — entitled, smart, cute.  They make a perfect group to illustrate the blindness of fate; why does this family survive when so many others were so less fortunate?

In perfect horror film cadences, Bayonna lulls his audience into the family’s idyll — not just their vacation in this perceived Phuket paradise but, moreover, the fairy-tale perfect family they embody.  fmp-the-impossibleMaria is beautiful, bright, calm and loving; she soothes her husband’s worry when he gets a text that implies he might fact difficulty at work.  Henry is handsome, intelligent, affectionate; he spends most of the time before the storm playing with and hugging his boys.  Then, knowing the viewers are securely tucked into the family’s Christmas paradise, he dashes them against the  harrowing flying debris — cars, trees, homes, animals, mud — and bloodiness of the tsunami.  The audience reels in the center of the mayhem along with the family as they are torn asunder, roiled in the brine, dashed back to land, remaining on the brink of disaster every minute of the film and until they are, miraculously, reunited and sent flying off to Singapore to begin their happy-ever-aftering.

Which, from where I stand, is where the real struggle will begin.

More than the moment-to-moment endeavor to keep breathing, the life they all move onto will most certainly be fraught with strife that few films, few novels thoroughly investigate: the real struggle for survival, the one that starts after calm returns to the world.  One of the trailers boasts that nothing is more powerful than the human spirit, but in the awful 72-hour wake of the immediate tidal wave, we only see the beginning of the test.

Several times in the course of the film, Bayona’s camera confides the horrors the family witnesses on the way out of mayhem.  We watch, rapt with fear and dread, as Maria comes up from the brown abyss, gasping and moaning.  She sees Lucas, still a self-absorbed child, clinging to flotsam, whining, “Make it stop, Mommy.  I don’t want to be here.”  Then, despite all indications to the contrary, the two manage to connect, and so Lucas begins his fast-forwarded transformation into manhood, while Maria learns to allow herself to be parented by her child.  No doubt about it, the human spirit is boundless, and these two are riveting in their courage.the-impossible06

But then the movie turns quite ordinary, sluggish, boring.  It begins to rely on tear-wrenching moments of great pain and emotion-numbing relief as the rest of the family is recalled to life.  There are some lovely bits — Lucas learns to find solace from his suffering by relieving others’, an old woman (Geraldine Chaplin) bonds with Simon under the stars — but we know how it’s going to end, and after a while we just want them to get on with it already.

The interesting stuff awaits them.  How completely must the nightmare in the water murder all their sleep from now on?  How entirely will the PTSD interfere with their interpersonal relationships?  How will the acrid smell and the visual obscenity of all those rotting dead cast along the shore, the road, the ditches on every inch of each one of their journeys to find one another?  How will their survivor guilt manifest?

Some fine acting has been captured in this movie.  Neither Watts nor Macgregor, who are usually fine, has ever shown more polished chops, and the boys are natural, believable, delightful.  Tom Holland emerges as the real find of the movie — his performance is subtle, nuanced, mature way beyond the actor’s sixteen years.

But how much more could this director have wrung from all that talent if they had had some human opponents to battle.  If, for example, they returned to England and found that no one remembered what they’d been through and just assumed that because they’ve lived, they should be nothing but grateful.  Or if Mom becomes a workaholic because she can’t shake the feeling that if she hadn’t been on so decadent a vacation, one of this would have happened.  If, after the idyll was dispelled, he had taken them back to — horror of horrors! – – real life.

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Illuminating the Borders of Time

Leslie Maitland, author, Crossing the Borders of Time

In my earliest memory of a life-long recurring dream, I am not yet 5, sleeping at my grandmother’s sharply-gabled, faux-Tudor house in Bayside, Queens, in a room that I keep reminding myself doesn’t really exist, under a sharply pointed roof.  I hear sirens outside, growing louder, finally screaming just beneath my window, and I am terrified.  I wrap myself in a blanket and roll under the bed, listening to the murmur of unfamiliar, angry voices, and then I hear my grandmother bark, in cigarette-induced contralto, an angry recitative, “You don’t belong here.”  A gruff male voice, thinly tenor, replies, “You are wrong.  We may have missed you the last time, but this time we will get you. You cannot escape again.”  Grandma’s screams are garbled, but I clearly hear “Run, children,” in German, and I begin frantically scurrying about the house, urging family members, to come with me.  But they won’t move.  I am weeping, pleading, and I am suddenly paralyzed.  I want to run but cannot.  I am immobilized and terrified, and then I wake up.

Those of us who grew up in the wake of the German terror in Europe lived tenuously in our parents’ new world, and we shared with them the displacements that came with them in their flight.  Their nightmares and pain became ours, their loss left us feeling cheated.

Unlike many of the survivors who became our parents, Leslie Maitland’s mother Hanna/Janine Günzburger, whose story is the subject of Maitland’s remarkable book Crossing the Borders of Time, was generous with her memories. Maitland grew up ingesting details of her mother’s life in Europe, the joys and the agonies that accompanied a childhood punctuated by frequent flights.  As German-speaking residents of Alsace and Lorrain, they fled amid shifting, enmity-defined borders, eventually forced out of Europe altogether, finding their way to the United States by way of a three-year sojourn in Cuba.

Maitland chronicles the exhilarating moments of her mother’s delicious, feisty youth and first love as well as the disappointments, the upheavals, the ultimate devastation of losing everything.  And in the wreckage, lay communication with Roland, the love of Janine’s life, the man she pledged to adore and promised to find when all the tumult subsided. He had vanished from her reach, and so began a lifetime of regretful longing for what might have been.

As her father lies dying, Maitland, a brilliant, seasoned, journalist, sets out on a journey to reconnect her mother to the man she loved first and loved best, and the quest to reunite the lovers embodies the universal pursuit of serenity that is the consequence of survival we all shared with and inherited from our parents.  Her pilgrimage is illuminating,

It’s easy, especially for the children of these survivors who were born into an America of plenty and of relative tolerance, to overlook the aftermath of the survivor’s experience and forget that the great miracle of their having made it through disaster is only the first small step in a struggle for contentment.  Having endured a tragedy and lived to tell the tale may be cause for gratitude, but it is also cause for years of self-reproach and self-doubt, of choices ruled by circumstances forged in the fires of hell.    Survivors’ guilt is a deep, multi-layered cloak they all bore without relief, and we rarely have the opportunity to examine its carefully-woven threads.

What makes Maitland’s book so affective is the fact that she tells it with no manipulations.  The emotion comes from the action, from the characters — her real-life antecedants — themselves, and it is honestly reported, forthrightly delivered.  There is no whine of self-pity for any of her various subjects, only a persistent will to live on and to find happiness, whatever that may have been.  In their desire for joy, the people in this book overcome multitudinous obstacles, but they never stop to question whether satisfaction is worth having.  They keep on keeping on, and in that they are heroic.

There are few books about the time period called The Holocaust that so effectively describe life in the shadow of  Hitler and the Nazis.  And part of Maitland’s effectiveness comes from the emotional restraint she exerts over every page.  Like Thomas Keneally in Schindler’s List, Maitland writes with unwavering objectivity, even when speaking of personal and deeply felt family history.

Which gives the story a power and a glory all its own.