David Gritten reviews 'The Impossible' and 'Midnight’s Children'

By David Gritten , Wednesday 2 January 2013

Saga's film expert finds his expectations confounded by the dramatisation of a real-life story.

I confess to having felt less than enthusiastic at the prospect of seeing The Impossible, a disaster movie of sorts about a western family who visit Thailand at Christmas in 2004 and find themselves caught up in the tsunami that devastated that region. It threatened to be crass and exploitative – a tear-jerker that surely belonged on TV.

Well, apart from the film’s tear-jerking qualities, which are undeniable, I was totally wrong. This is a fine piece of film-making, utterly gripping, genuinely powerful and thankfully unsensational. It concerns the plight of a British family – father Ewan McGregor, mother Naomi Watts and their three young sons – who arrive at a Thai beach resort for well-earned rest and relaxation - and find themselves separated by the sheer power of the tsunami that ravages their resort hotel.

The sequence in which the giant wave crashes to shore, destroying everything in its path, is breathtakingly well executed. But the core story of The Impossible is one of survival – the various members of the family, some of whom are convinced the others must have perished, simply do their best to stay alive and then, using different makeshift medical facilities as their bases, try to track the others down.

McGregor is simply superb as the grieving father, and Watts is close behind him as his severely-injured wife. Tom Holland as the eldest boy, barely in his teens, is a standout too.

Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has the gift of making us care deeply about this family, who are initially portrayed as slightly spoiled and self-indulgent before the disaster hits. (The story is based on the experiences of a real-life Spanish family.) But once we watch them fighting for their lives, our sympathies are completely engaged.

There are tears, joy, hope and despair before this family’s story is finally resolved: it’s a bumpy ride at times, a real emotional roller-coaster. The Impossible has been criticised for emphasising the ordeal of a western family in a disaster that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of local inhabitants. Yet it must be said the Thai cast acquit themselves well, calmly showing the remarkable amount of unflagging work done by the locals to help in the rescue and medical efforts following the appalling disaster.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is one of my favourite novels, so I was hoping it would transfer brilliantly to the big screen. Sadly, this wasn’t the case – I found it leaden and laborious.

Much of the blame, I fear, must be laid at Rushdie’s door. He wrote the screenplay for the film, and it’s overlong and far too detailed; he seems to have been reluctant to excise his own material, a process that is crucial for a successful screen adaptation. But even worse, Rushdie narrates the story in voice-over – in knowing, whimsical tones that swiftly grate.

The kernel of the story remains intact: two boys, one rich, one poor are swapped at birth at the very stroke of midnight in August 1947 when India became an independent nation after years of British rule. That’s fine, but there’s an uneasy mix between the portrayal of historical events and saccharine sequences of magical realism, often ushered in by wind chimes or breathy flutes on the soundtrack.

Midnight’s Children is a long novel from which I couldn’t tear myself away; this is a long film (at 148 minutes) that feels like extended punishment. It needed a firm, neutral presence on set to rein in Rushdie, who is also credited as executive producer; whether director Deepa Mehta even tried remains unclear, but she fails to put her own stamp on the story. A pity.

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David Gritten on film

David Gritten has been Saga Magazine’s film critic for 10 years and also writes for the Daily Telegraph. He lived and worked in Los Angeles for 10 years, and edited Halliwell’s film guide for 2008-09. Fred Astaire, Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar are among his film heroes.

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