Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
You may like this if you liked: World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006), The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004), Perfect Sense (David Mackenzie, 2011)
Based on a true story, The Impossible tells the story of the Bennett family who spend a holiday in Thailand for Christmas 2004 and get caught up in the tragic events of the tsunami that cost so many lives. Maria Bennett (Watts) and eldest son Lucas (Holland) find themselves alone in the carnage and with Maria suffering from horrific injuries struggle across the ravaged landscape to get help. Henry Bennett (McGregor) and youngest two sons Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) are at the ruins of their hotel and determined to find the rest of their family.
‘Based on a true story’ leaves certain room for scope, and some cynics may claim the decision to change the main characters of a Spanish family to a British family may be motivated by potential box office receipts. Especially with the casting of bankable well known stars like Watts and McGregor. Also disaster films, especially ones based on a recent true story always tread a fine line for me. There has to be a balance achieved that avoids showing all the heartbreaking scenes of tragedy as shameless money shots. I personally thought The Impossible achieved this perfectly and emerges as a heartfelt and deeply emotional drama made with absolute integrity.
In my view, for disaster films to work they have to follow one of two structures: Either a global balls out special effects bonanza that lacks any real protagonists to care about (and costs a lot of money) or a more intimate story that focuses on a small number of characters. The criminally underrated Perfect Sense in my view achieved this perfectly and we all know the appalling tragedy that occurred during Boxing Day 2004 and this film never forgets that, but the focus on just one family provides compelling and emotional drama that truly does tug at the heartstrings.
The pacing of this film is perfect and lesser films would spend so much more time cashing in on the fact we know what is going to happen and overdoing it on shots of people enjoying themselves in the sun. There is just enough time devoted to show us the family and their own personalities before the tragedy strikes. The scenes when the tsunami hits are breathtaking, they are expertly created by Bayona and sound and image create an overpowering and claustrophobic experience. The scenes depicting the aftermath are brutal and heartbreaking, but once again never over do it and feel contrived. They are made with integrity and demonstrate respect for this appalling tragedy.
After the disaster has hit, we are left with a purely character driven narrative. The members of this family are characters we truly care about with Bayona showing restraint at reminding us of what is happening around them. The scenes of lined up corpses and dying patients in the hospital offering a sense of perspective instead of cheap contrived melancholy money shots.
Watts and McGregor both give committed and heartfelt performances that evoke genuine sympathy but for me the main stars are the younger actors. Tom Holland gives an extremely powerful performance and we often see the film through his eyes as we follow his extremely powerful and poignant character arc. Even when the inevitable plot development has happened there are few clichéd moments as we are poignantly reminded of the tragedy surrounding the Bennett’s and that Maria’s struggle continues.
However as the film enters its final third there may be a few too many clichéd moments that add nothing. The score itself by composer Fernando Velázquez tried way too hard to cling at the heartstrings and just ended up feeling a little too contrived. Anyone watching this will remember these horrific events at the hands of nature and all the mechanics of film making are really not needed to remind us of the scale of this tragedy. These however are minor criticisms of what is otherwise an expertly made human drama.
The Impossible is an expertly made human drama that is made with the necessary integrity and respect. Due to it being such a recent event this is not an easy watch and do not expect to have dry eyes at times, but the themes of the compassion of the human spirit avoid all the clichés to deliver a deeply moving and involving drama.