Watching The Impossible, a drama about the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand, is a harrowing experience in of itself. It’s a testament to the great work of director Juan Antonio Bayona that the audience feels completely swept along for the ride during the film’s first half, as the big wave wreaks havoc on a tourist resort and the film’s shell-shocked protagonists struggle to reach safety.
Those protagonists are British tourists Maria and Lucas Bennett, a mother and her son, played marvelously by British-Australian actress Naomi Watts and 16-year-old British newcomer Tom Holland. Watts shows off her full dramatic range, going from stunned, teary disbelief to determined, mother-bear ferocity in a matter of seconds. Grievously wounded in the disaster, Maria fights both to stay alive and protect her son. Watts truly shines in the role, never hitting a false note with her visceral, unidealized performance. Her desperation, fear, and pain are palpable on-screen, and her weary terror never feels false or inaccurate. Holland, meanwhile, is a revelation as her levelheaded son, struggling to keep his wits about him during an unimaginable catastrophe. The audience feels what Holland feels as the young actor excels in conveying a vast range of emotions with just a glance. His is an unmistakable talent.
The other members of the Bennett family, separated from Maria and Lucas during the tsunami, are father Henry (Ewan McGregor), and young sons Tomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). All three are terrific in their roles, particularly McGregor, compelling as a father torn between protecting his younger sons and searching desperately for his wife and Lucas. He commands attention in his scenes, and my only regret is that the audience doesn’t get to see his story immediately after impact. His scenes, tense and watchable as they are, appear shoehorned into a movie that makes Watts and Holland its sole focus.
That narrow lens is The Impossible‘s only significant shortcoming as a movie. Though the tsunami killed well over 200,000 people and affected millions, the film only allows audiences to watch a Hollywood story unfold within that chaos. It’s a slightly romanticized version of a terrible tragedy; though the photogenic stars are put through Hell, they come out relatively unscathed, and while that makes for an inspirational story, it feels almost purposefully unrealistic. It’s worth noting that the family on which the Bennetts’ story is based in fact hail from Spain, not England. The Alvarez family’s story is the one unfolding in the film, so it is disquieting that, though the film was created by Spaniards, the main characters are all portrayed by photogenic British actors, and the native Thais only appear when they are selflessly helping the Bennetts get to safety. The film glazes over the destruction wrought on Thailand and anyone other than the Bennetts, and The Impossible would have been a more complete and likely better film if it had resisted the temptation to ‘whitewash’ events.
The movie’s real MVP, however, is the man behind the camera. Bayona does a top-notch job of recreating the terror, magnitude, and natural savagery of the 2004 tsunami. As people, chairs, boards, trees, and buildings are crushed under the force of a seemingly endless, massive wave of water and debris, The Impossible makes a credible bid to be the most realistic and visually overwhelming film about a natural disaster ever made. You won’t see a scarier, more punishing twenty minutes anywhere else. The camera, diving headfirst into the mayhem, somehow simultaneously catches both the scale of the destruction and the heartbreaking look of traumatized panic on Naomi Watts’ face. It’s tremendous, in-your-face filmmaking.
Despite its numerous shortcomings as a film, The Impossible succeeds in giving audiences a glimpse into the terror that the 2004 tsunami’s victims felt. For that, it should be commended. Terrific performances by Watts, Holland, and McGregor, in addition to Bayona’s stellar direction, help The Impossible to transcend its script’s frustrating limitations and show audiences the terrifying face of nature that is so often overlooked and forgotten. B
Photo courtesty: Edgewater County Confidential.