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TIFF 2012: The Impossible and Song For Marion

Posted on Saturday September 15, 2012, 20:24 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
TIFF 2012: The Impossible and Song For Marion

The Impossible was one of two films that, though well received by the public, were subjected to a number of swipes by some of the more heartless critics. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, director of the supernatural thriller The Orphanage, it is a spectacular and very direct film that perhaps succeeds too successfully in what it sets out to do, since there are no genre trimmings, next to no action-based subplots or any nuances to “read” into. For me, it worked perfectly, but others complained that there wasn't much to it. Seeing as it tells the story of a very real family of five whose lives where changed forever by the Thailand tsunami of 2004, I thought that was a tad unfair.

Another criticism was that the film was in some way “Hollywoodised” and an insult to the local people killed in this tragic event, but, personally, I thought it worked having a very ordinary western family as the focus (the original family seem to have been Spanish). Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts are hardly Brad and Angelina, and both bring a quiet dignity to the film, that begins on Boxing Day on a family holiday. The recreation of the tsunami itself is pretty full on and terrifying, but it is the strange calm that follows that Bayona handles with supreme care and attention to detail. The Impossible is an apt title, since it is impossible to imagine what it must be like to be these people, to see what they saw and face what they had to face, and the film leaves us at the very point when they must come to terms with that themselves. It's a very intelligent and visceral piece of filmmaking in that respect, one that not only asks us to fill in some of the pieces ourselves but also to ponder man's very low and humble place in the order of nature and science.

Also given short shrift by too-cool-for-school critics busy sifting for the next Paul Thomas Anderson or the new Let The Right One In was Song For Marion by Britain's own Paul Andrew Williams. Williams's “crime”, after a series of variously gritty genre movies, was to make the move into an entirely new and different field, and though the result doesn't always hit the target (the com doesn't equal the rom), this is a very beautiful and striking love story of the kind you don't often see, carried by two great performances by Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp.

Redgrave is Marion, a suburban grandmother who is dying of cancer. Marion has an irrepressible spirit, and instead of resting up she spends her free time at the community centre, where she performs in a choir led by the beautiful but single Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). Marion's husband Arthur (Stamp) doesn't approve, but not, as the others think, because he is a terrible, joyless man but because he knows his wife is being prised out of his grip by life (or rather death), and that he will soon be horribly, horribly alone. People wonder what Marion sees in him but they never stop to think about what he sees in her, and Stamp conveys Arthur's quiet despair in a very soulful way.

Much was made at TIFF about the film's template, and it's true that it does follow the well-beaten path to redemption ploughed by the likes of the Full Monty and Brassed Off (when Marion dies, Arthur joins the choir in her place and has to face the possibility of a very public humiliation in the finals of a national choir competition). Again, this isn't the film at its best, since some of the choir's travails – including a last-minute hitch at the finale – don't especially ring true. But where Williams's film does, I think, achieve greatness is in the unspoken pact between Arthur and Marion (the significance of the names should not be overlooked, since this is one of those legendarily intense romances). The more snide reviews tended to dwell on the plot contrivances that lead Arthur to the stage, but this is not the story of a man “coming round” and having a Damascene conversion in the style of Ebenezer Scrooge, it is the story of a man coming up for air, having been pushed down for so long by the stresses of caring for a woman who is disappearing before his very eyes and by the anguish of losing her forever.

For me, Song For Marion is a refreshing alternative to Michael Haneke's dour Palme D'Or winner Amour, since it is a film about loving and letting go, the history between a man and his wife and family, and a far more truthful and likely story for many. As an end to a very successful festival, it seemed fitting; there can't have been a dry eye in the house.  

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