Searching for someone to blame

Docudrama on the Boxing Day tsunami fails to deliver a knockout blow

<strong>Tsunami: the aftermat

Someone notices the beach is all sand and no sea. The birds scatter across the sky in Hitchcockian frenzy. Fish as colourful as sweet wrappers flip across the sand. "Daft buggers," says a father to his daughter Martha on his way back to the beach hut. The father, Ian, has almost reached his room when, in the reflection of a glass door, he witnesses the sea making its comeback as a galloping wall of water. In the sudden flood, Martha slips from his arms and wraps herself around a tree. "Hold on," he says before becoming submerged. When Ian resurfaces, he cannot see the tree, never mind Martha.

At the moment of impact, the film yields to amateur video cam, which is how the world witnessed the Boxing Day tsunami: in tourist vision. High-quality, 35mm service soon resumes, however. Although the devastation at Khao Lak, Thailand, in 2004 was made to resemble Omaha beach on D-Day - the prosthetics department did wonders with dummy corpses - it also looked a bit like Lost. This two-part, three-hour drama (28 November, 9pm, and this Tuesday) was filmed in Thailand and its natural beauty kept crashing through the suffering. The writer, Abi Morgan, whose Sex Traffic observed the rule that gritty realism demands grainy film stock, must have winced at the director Bharat Narulli's choice of disaster-movie gloss.

Maybe it was the gloss or maybe it was the music's swelling crescendos (think Spielberg) but somehow Tsunami: the aftermath failed to deliver the emotional knockout blow that was intended. It was not the fault of the actors. No one does grief better than the Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo. As Ian, Susie's husband, Chiwetel Ejiofor, proved her equal. As they searched for Martha, Ian held on to the hope that she was alive as grimly as he believed she held to the tree. Susie let go early and attached herself instead to a different little girl. As they looked for Martha, they also sought someone to blame: Ian for letting go of her; Susie for choosing that morning to go sailing.

Their demand that someone be held responsible for an act of God is understandable if illogical. It also reflects the mindset of a film that is looking for villains. It comes up with: the Thai government for censoring a scientist who had predicted looming disaster; an out-of-his-depth British consul, who does good but slowly; and a British woman who represents the companies that built hotels less sturdy than the palm trees in front of them and are now performing a land grab over the demolished remains of Khao Lak. Buddhist monks get it in the neck for burning unidentified bodies and God gets a mouthful, too.

Playing the blame game for all it's worth and not minding too much if his quest for truth turns into a vendetta is Tim Roth as the cynical journalist Nick. Nick is khaki-skinned, more persuasive than Milton's serpent and incapable of proper relationships. When we meet him, he has just been fired by his news agency. Rehired, he travels lightly carrying only his paper and electronic notebooks. He relaxes with a beer, but there is no evidence that he is an alcoholic, which is a shame, because we like our clichés fully furnished. Still, he does get a secret document pushed under his door, share his bed with a contact and row with his editor.

Perhaps Morgan should have stuck with Nick's crusade and halved the running time. Instead, we spent almost as much time with the slightly incompetent diplomat (played humanely by Hugh Bonneville), the slightly irritating charity worker (Toni Collette), and Gina McKee as the slightly hysterical widow trying to get her son medevaced to the UK before his leg is sawn off. The Thai waiter's take on the loss of his family seemed more attractive: it is not what he would wish; it is what is. Against it was Nick's semi-professional outrage. You could call this the film's creative tension or you could, as I did, yearn for coherence. Tsunami was neither conspiracy thriller nor a portrait of grief. Nevertheless, out of it a picture of human frailty emerged with which it was hard to argue.

Pick of the week

The Choir
4 December, 9pm, BBC2
It's less hoodies, more high notes as monosyllabic state school pupils are transformed into choristers.

Disappearing Britain
4 December, 9pm, Five
Fancy a brew? Wendy Craig traces the history of the British cuppa.

The State Within
7 December, 9pm, BBC1
Last episode of the gripping political thriller. Will British diplomat Mark Brydon save the free world?

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Nation of fools