On December 26, 2004 a tsunami occurred in the Indian Ocean as a result of an earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The tragedy was responsible for the deaths of over 230,000 people in fourteen countries. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Indonesia was the hardest-hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. Those are facts, but they certainly don’t have the sentimental impact of the personal story.
The Impossible is based on the actual chronicle of a Spanish family’s struggle while on Christmas vacation in Thailand at a tropical paradise resort. This then is the story of the subsequent terror from the standpoint of a British couple, Maria and Henry, played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, and their three children. They become separated and this account details their arduous journey to reunite.
At the outset what impresses is the sheer spectacle in the epic depiction of the tsunami. Apocalyptic is the only way to accurately describe the utter severity of the catastrophe. We’ve seen natural disasters at the cinema over the last two decades: Twister (1996), Armageddon (1998), The Perfect Storm (2000), The Day After Tomorrow (2004). While those flicks were entertaining, they don’t even come close to the depth contained within this convincing tale. Perhaps that’s partially because The Impossible recounts a true story that millions, myself included, saw unfold on TV. Those images are hard to shake and visually this does a brilliant job in recreating the absolute magnitude of the chaos.
It’s the extraordinary performances that’s separate this from other memorable disaster films. An authentic recreation of a calamity, however accomplished, wouldn’t have been enough to sustain a movie. Ewan McGregor as father Henry, Tom Holland as his oldest son Lucas and most notably Naomi Watts as Maria, his wife, are the heart of this picture. This is a story that wisely focuses on the drama of human feeling. It is largely unconcerned with collective depictions of horrendous misfortune in the various countries affected or sweeping news reports from around the world. The script is concerned with the exclusive perspective of a small group of people, This depicts what an individual would experience – both the physical and emotional effects. The situation is devastatingly real. It’s very easy to imagine yourself in their shoes. There are times where I was overcome with grief. Sometimes in seemingly trivial actions where it’s difficult to explain why it moved me so. At one point, a rescued toddler gently brushes the arm of Maria as sort of an unspoken gesture of gratitude. I can’t explain why, but I actually teared up at the expression. There are many moments like that throughout.
The Impossible takes the adversity of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and wrings genuine emotion from the events. I’ll admit there are a couple instances where I did feel a little manipulated. Do we really need Fernando Velázquez’s score to swell so loudly in scenes where the human drama speaks for itself? But that’s a minor quibble. Overall this is a heartbreaking take on a real life event from the intimate point of view of one family. Director Juan Antonio Bayona manages to tell their story without it ever being gratuitous or resorting to sensationalism. Credit should go to a trio of thespians: Ewan McGregor, young actor Tom Holland and Naomi Watts. Much of the understanding in their roles is hidden in what they don’t say – a look, a reaction, a smile. It’s difficult to convey that kind of expression well. They handle their respective parts with dexterity. Watts gives an especially impressive performance. There is not one false note in her portrayal. Her sincerity, along with her co-stars, strengthen an already powerful film.