, 114 m., 2012
Naomi Watts (Maria), Ewan McGregor (Henry), Tom Holland (Lucas), Samuel Joslin (Thomas), Oaklee Pendergast (Simon), Marta Etura (Simone), Sönke Möhring (Karl), Geraldine Chaplin (Old Woman), Ploy Jindachote (Caregiver), Jomjaoi Sae-Limh (Red Cross Nurse), Johan Sundberg (Daniel), Jan Roland Sundberg (Daniel’s Father), La-Orng Thongruang (Old Thai Man), Tor Klathaley (Young Thai Man), Douglas Johansson (Mr. Benstrom). Directed by J.A. Bayona and produced by Belén Atienza, Álvaro Augustín, Ghislain Barrois, Enrique López Lavigne (as Enrique López-Lavigne). Screenplay by Sergio G. Sánchez, based on a story by María Belón.
In 2004, a tsunami hit Thailand. J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible takes that painful reality and depicts it in as visceral and involving a way as possible. Based on a true story, Bayona’s film shows the remarkable human ingenuity it took to survive in the wake of such a stunning disaster.
Naomi Watts stars as Maria Bennett, a doctor and wife of British executive Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor). On holiday in Thailand, attempting to escape their humdrum existence in favor of a breathtaking foreign vista, the Bennetts bring their children Lucas (a noteworthy Tom Holland), and his two younger brothers Thomas and Simon (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast). Unfortunately, it’s not long before a massive wave of water crashes into the posh resort hotel the Bennetts have moved into.
After the introductory bit that establishes the Bennetts as well-to-do but working parents, the next 10-15 minutes is sheer terror. Maria is swept away through broken glass and, along with the rest of the people and things in the area, alternately underwater, slammed into trees and lashed and impaled on branches, and her son is scarcely better off. We travel with them through this horrific ordeal, Bayona’s camera awash in disorientation, water and debris right alongside. Occasionally, we get glimpses of the water (rendered with astonishing visual effects) from high above and see some lucky souls clinging to tall trees, trying desperately to avoid the fates of Maria and many others.
At this point, the film shifts perspective somewhat to become about how Lucas must get his injured mother and a potentially orphaned young boy they meet first to safety and then to hospital. Succeeding in this, Lucas becomes a surrogate faith healer, taking information and attempting to reunite various families with their lost loved ones in the chaos of the disaster’s aftermath. Meanwhile, his own loved ones are in rather short supply.
Finally, we follow Henry as he and his other two sons search for wife and brother, respectively, enduring similarly chaotic circumstances without the obviously painful injuries which befell Maria. It won’t be an easy task, and there are many frustrating near-misses in the coincidental searches undertaken.
J.A. Bayona is the Spanish filmmaker behind one of the creepiest ghost stories I’ve seen in some time, The Orphanage (2007). After having showed how the supernatural can affect the human spirit, Bayona here turns his attention to human ingenuity in the face of appalling natural disaster. He further elicits affecting and courageous performances from Watts, McGregor and young Mr. Holland, all of whom convincingly portray a family drifting apart in their everyday lives before painful reality crashes unexpectedly into them, forcing them back together again. If he can do what he does here with remarkable special effects and performances on a consistent basis, he will be a formidable filmmaker to watch.
Footnote: Given Bayona’s Spanish nationality, it is somewhat curious that he took the true story of a Spanish family and transplanted it with British actors. While this didn’t affect my enjoyment/involvement of the film, it has given me some pause in retrospect and has caused some rather negative reviews since the film’s release.