I’m hard-pressed to think of a less glamorous role for a high-profile actor in a recent mainstream movie than the one taken on by Naomi Watts in The Impossible. The last time I saw a character so thoroughly bruised, lacerated, and pummelled almost to death, I was watching Jim Caviezel suffer for my sins in The Passion of the Christ. In this film, Watts plays María Belón (her name Briticised to Maria Bennett) who, along with her husband (played by Ewan McGregor) and three sons, was caught up in the 2004 Indian earthquake and tsunami while on a Christmas holiday in Thailand. Following the devastating wave that rips apart their resort, the two parents are separated and spend the rest of the film trying to reunite the family. Maria is critically injured, and spends most of the film’s second half on a hospital bed, slowly dying from her wounds.
Watts has form when it comes to playing (or being offered) the parts of real people: Marie Anderson Bicke (with name changed) in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Valerie Plame in Fair Game, Helen Gandy in J.Edgar, and she’s soon to be seen as Princess Diana in Oliver Hirschbergel’s biopic (while, interestingly, her old schoolfriend Nicole Kidman is playing Grace Kelly, another Princess of Europe who died in a car crash – that could make for an interesting Oscar-race story in 2014), and explorer Gertrude Bell in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert. It’s no longer clear if she’s still locked in for Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe movie Blonde (from the book by Joyce Carol Oates). This tendency towards biographical depictions is not because Watts physically resembles any of these people, nor because she possesses some Meryl-Streepian gifts of mimicry, but more likely because she has an element of blankness about her. To rephrase that so that it doesn’t sound insulting, Watts’ screen persona is not inflected by a powerful extradiegetic presence nor by typecasting expectations. In biopics, it makes sense to cast a big name: the aura we attach to well-known historical figures is similar to that which we give to movie stars, so the charisma of the latter transfers readily onto the former. But when it comes to portraying “regular people” Hollywood can sometimes struggle, and certain stars are too drenched in star power to be believed as an actual person with actual (as opposed to cinematic or generic) problems. Imagine, say, Angelina Jolie in the role of María Belón. One would expect her to shrug off her flesh wounds and rise gloriously up from the gurney, if she hadn’t already stopped the waters with a hard stare. Jolie looks superheroic, and has capitalised on this fact by playing resourceful, resilient women who don’t escape pain, but show how its effects can be transcended with courage and stamina (see A Mighty Heart, Changeling, Salt etc.). In The Impossible, Maria certainly surmounts a lot of physical challenges, but they have to remain within the bounds of plausibility.Now, let’s get the most controversial aspect of The Impossible on the table. The Boxing Day Tsunami killed around 275,000 people in 14 countries. 141,000 houses were destroyed, and many people lost their livelihoods (by some counts, around 600,000 people just in the Indonesian province of Aceh, one of the worst affected areas). In Thailand, the death toll is estimated at 8,212. That’s a shocking statistic, but relatively small compared to the 167,799 estimated to have been killed in Indonesia. Of all the people killed, around 9,000 were foreign (mostly European) tourists. The Impossible focuses almost exclusively on the suffering of those tourists. This need not be problematic, because one of the film’s aims is clearly to bring home the scale of the devastation to non-local, audiences in the language of spectacular cinema that they are presumed to understand better than any aid agency’s reports. But it should be noted that the tourist communities’ experiences must have been distinct from that of the locals , who couldn’t fly away from the devastation when their insurance companies came to pick them up (I wasn’t sure why the Bennett family were flown out of Thailand on an otherwise empty plane at the end of the movie). It’s all very well to tell the story of some of those tourists, but the film seems to want to use them as emblems of the courage and determination shown in adversity by all peoples affected. On that level, it doesn’t really work, and ultimately, it can only emphasise the immediate flesh wounds and bruising that healed much more quickly than flattened villages and submerged agricultural infrastructures. [In The Shock Doctrine, by the way, Naomi Klein showed how tourism industrialists capitalised on the tsunami by developing parts of the coastlines they'd previously been unable to take over, once local people and industries had been displaced.]
Anyway, the film opts to focus on a small group of individuals, and María Belón’s near-death experience in particular. If you want a local account of the disaster’s repercussions, try Aditya Assarat’s Wonderful Town (2007), which is more concerned with the aftermath, the psychological dislocations caused by enormous catastrophic damage. The Impossible is at the opposite end of that representational spectrum, transplanting all of its energies onto the physical toll of the disaster, the wounds, cuts, bruises and bouts of unconsciousness that are tangible, measurable, relatable. We’ve all been cut or bruised; all you have to do is imagine the same thing but much worse. Few of us can countenance being part of a destroyed village, for example. Belón herself has remarked of her ordeal and her recovery: ”My scars will be with me forever. My whole story is on my body. It’s wonderful, because it means I am alive.” The film takes this sentiment and runs with it, making a grim spectacle of Watts’ wounded body. Her pain, her flesh is meant to stand in synecdochically for the wounds suffered by many hundreds of thousands of people on that day in 2004. Whatever the folly of such an endeavour, it makes for powerful and gruelling viewing. Watts is at her best at the extremes of physical exertion. As we saw most strikingly in Funny Games, she is superlative at miming severe, sinew-straining pain and distress, and appears slight enough that we can firmly believe in her vulnerability. Her portions of the film therefore play out like a series of inspections of her physical state, monitoring her flesh and her face for vital signs. This begins even before the tsunami hits. In a brief early scene, we watch Watts changing into her beach outfit, marking the shift from work-life to vacation-time. She is shot at sunset, eroticised (or romanticised, if you prefer) by lens flare and voyeuristic sneaking-up-behind camerawork.It’s only slightly gratuitous nudity, because it is mirrored later on by a truly shocking glimpse of her body, stripped by the waves, her breast sliced open. That we observe this through the eyes of her horrified eldest son (“I can’t see you like this!” he cries) links her body back to motherhood, desexualising the nudity; part of the effect is to ensure that the film’s body horror is removed from the generic comforts that might come from the horror-movie’s tendency to luxuriate in the spectacle of torment and corporeal punishment.To prove the point, in a later scene in the hospital, Watts’ screen son again has to avert his eyes as his mother’s clothes are cut from her. What’s notable is that, after the tsunami hits, Watts’ character hardly does anything. Many things are done to her, but she is the object of forces and procedures beyond her control. Again, it’s rare to find a role that focuses so heavily on the abject powerlessness of its protagonist.This maybe part of the film’s project to use her as a witness to disaster rather than someone with any stake in or power over it. Lacking any antagonist (unless you can really work up some anger towards dumb nature), the film can only reassert the agent-less indifference of the world. Belon is saved not by self-belief, determination or force of will, but by receiving medical care in a timely fashion. Finally, while under anaesthetic, Maria’s memory of the tsunami is replayed in a stylised subjective montage that ends with her body floating beatifically in the centre of a swirl of debris and bodies, a more familiar rendering of an out-of-body, near-death experience. It is final confirmation of the film’s attempts to make her a monumental site of pain and suffering, while simultaneously, perhaps even paradoxically, a symbol of its hopeful transcendence.
Postscript: How do you promote such a film, or how do you use the star to headline and market such grim subject matter. You can emphasise the fact that the films’ central characters all escaped with their lives, and stress that this is about the resilience of family rather than its disturbing frangibility. Plus, you can cut immediately to the private life of that star, as David Letterman chose to do, using Watts’ motherhood to two young boys as a route into talking about the film and setting up comparisons between star and role:
I suspect that Watts’ apparently stable, unremarkable (i.e. unmarked by recent outrage, eccentricity, criminality, addiction, cosmetic surgery etc.) home life will be turned into a primary point of context in promoting her films, especially when she is again called upon to play a mother of sons (Two Mothers, Diana, Funny Games); her second son can even be seen, in utero, in a scene in Mother and Child (2009). I’m reluctant to make an issue of this, since men are not asked about their children in promotional interviews, but since Watts has, for most of her career, managed to keep a low profile for her family, we can identify a new trend as she apparently allows her choices of role to correspond more noticeably with her private life.
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