Starring: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast
Runtime: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Bottom line: Difficult but rewarding drama
“The Impossible” doesn’t exactly pull off the impossible (a pun which many reviewers will surely use), but it is an astonishing piece of work.
The film is based on the true story of a Spanish family vacationing in Thailand during the 2004 Christmas holiday when a tsunami devastated the entire region.
The movie makes the family British, even though this is a Spanish production.
Henry (Ewan McGregor), Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin), are a typical middle class family that most of us can relate to.
They have saved up for the vacation. They play in the surf and enjoy a lantern lighting ceremony hosted by the resort. While the boys swim in the pool, Henry and Maria bicker over finances and career decisions.
This is before the tsunami. Their lives will soon be divided into before and after. Just like the real victims, every part of their lives will be changed by this event.
The scenes depicting the initial hit of the tsunami are rendered with such horrific realism I think I held my breath for the entire sequence, which lasts several minutes.
“The Impossible” is technically a disaster movie, I suppose, but it does not play like one. The filmmakers show us the tsunami in real time, more or less. They don’t drag it out for an entire act like most disaster movies do.
After the tsunami hits, “The Impossible” becomes a survival story, and we move on to something equally nightmarish.
The tsunami scatters the family. For the movie equivalent of an eternity, we’re not sure what happened to Henry, Simon or Thomas.
Instead, the film primarily follows Maria and Lucas, who miraculously find each other as the waves evolve into muddy floes that level anything in their path.
Maria and Lucas’ story forms the backbone of the film.
After the waves subside, Maria finds her leg is seriously injured. She will lose it if she doesn’t get medical help soon. The parent and child roles are reversed at that point.
Lucas must care for his mother as they seek help. They also need to find Henry and the other two boys — if they are even still alive. And beyond all of that, they are forced to make decisions that no one should have to make.
They hear a young child crying somewhere nearby. He is obviously hurt and abandoned. But do they try to help, when they are badly hobbled and in danger of dying themselves?
Screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez insightfully captures all of the fear and frailty any parent would experience in this situation.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona gives us glimpses of the tsunami’s massive destruction but wisely reduces the scope of the film to this one family and the several people with whom they come into contact.
The film never becomes exploitative and doesn’t go for shock value like most disaster movies. This is an outstanding drama about a family in an extraordinary situation.
Watts and McGregor play their roles perfectly. Watts gives one of her best performances, much of it restricted to a hospital bed.
Newcomer Tom Holland is a revelation. The teenager gives an incredibly powerful and diverse performance in his first live action feature film. The entire picture hinges on him, and he more than rises to the occasion. He gives one of the best supporting roles of the year.
“The Impossible” is not an easy to film to watch. You will cry, your heart will race, and you will find it almost impossible not to imagine yourself in the same situations as the characters, especially if you are a parent.
But the film is an intensely emotional, life-affirming experience that will have you hugging your loved ones as you walk out of the theater.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.