Nothing is more powerful than the human spirit.
207Tearing away at a thick blanket of horrific tragedy to reveal a single strand of desperate hope, The Impossible is actually everything that the clichéd sound-bites and critical praise would have you believe - powerful, emotional and positively incredible - a pretty convincingly epic disaster movie, with heart.
With compelling, Oscar-recognised central performances - from child and adult actors alike - and strong direction from Juan Antonio Bayona (the acclaimed Spanish director behind 2007’s horror The Orphanage), the film manages to paint an honest portrait of one of the most devastating natural disasters that mankind has ever seen. Somewhat surprisingly it manages to largely avoid dipping into that syrupy saccharine-sweet territory that seems par for the course in these types of based-on-a-true-story tales, instead generating a genuine sense of panic, dread and simply impossible odds of survival.
The story focuses on the Bennetts, a British family who have been working abroad and are in the middle of enjoying a sunny Christmas break in Thailand when the tsunami hits their resort. The devastating tidal wave – caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean – lays waste to the country, felling trees, levelling buildings and drowning almost every living creature that gets swept up in its torrents. The Bennetts are savagely torn apart, dragged away in the flood and left wondering whether they will even make it out of this alive, let alone be reunited.
The Impossible is actually an almost entirely Spanish production – notwithstanding its cast, characters and English dialogue – which may go some way towards explaining why it largely manages to avoid the clichés and pitfalls of its Hollywood counterparts. Reuniting after their work together on The Orphanage, the writer Sergio Sanchez and the director, Bayona (along with most of the rest of the crew from The Orphanage, including the cinematographer, editor and composer), clearly know how to tell a compelling story and manage to crank up the tension to an almost unbearable level, without the need for grandstanding theatrics or in-your-face surprises. Indeed, for once – and despite your experience of these kinds of true-life stories telling you otherwise – you genuinely believe that these characters may not all make it out of this alive.
Of course it’s the performance of the core cast members that go a long way towards cementing the authenticity of the tale and convincing us of the desperate plight and struggle against adversity, and thankfully we get across-the-board impressive contributions. Ewan Macgregor, who has enjoyed a trio of decent lead dramatic performances of late (Beginners, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and now this – not the mention an atypical villainous turn in Haywire) – gets to reinforce the fact that, despite being most famous for his roles in Trainspotting and as Obi-Wan, he is more than capable with considerably more substantial work, but it’s Naomi Watts who truly stands out amidst the leads.
Going above and beyond in her oftentimes brave and daring performance as the wife and mother of the family torn apart by the disaster, Watts was quite rightly Oscar nominated for her role here. She’s had a few opportunities to shine across her career – from her career-making turn in David Lynch’s enthralling Mulholland Drive to her powerful contribution to 21 Grams – but is still probably better known for the competent remakes of The Ring or King Kong, or even the unusually good thriller The International, rather than those earlier, stronger, but more independent works. Here she gets one of her all-time best roles, and really rises to the challenge.
Rarely do we get to see actors convince in such physically and emotionally damaged roles: Watts’ character struggling around with painfully vicious wounds – and traumatic experiences – that would make most of us want to just curl up and die, driven solely by the knowledge that her young son would not survive without her. Indeed the scenes between her and teenage actor Tom Holland (who I actually got to see live for an impressive performance of Billy Elliot) are amidst the very best in the movie; the mother-son relationship shown to be stronger than anybody could ever possibly imagine as it is tested by the devastating power of Mother Nature. Expect great things from this young actor in the future as well as – hopefully – more choice roles for both Macgregor and Watts off the back of their work here.
I actually regret not taking the time over Christmas to see this on the Big Screen – perhaps the gushing reviews were simply too overwhelming at the time, or perhaps it was just drowned out by so many higher profile titles – but I can only imagine that the surprisingly impressive disaster sequences are even more effective at the cinema.
Working with a comparatively moderate budget, Bayona picks and chooses his battles carefully, using a few select sequences to hammer home the impact and devastation caused by the tsunami, without ever allowing the movie to devolve into effects-driven folly. Favouring miniature work over for the majority of the grander flood sequences, the film has a far more authentic feel than most (is it just me, or does CG still – even after all these years – stand out far more than practical effects?), and no doubt the numerous water-tank sequences further assisted no end. This is an emotionally-charged, character-driven drama first and foremost, but the effects sequences are still very powerful, made all the more resonant by the fact that this all actually took place.
And despite some critics saying otherwise, I would argue that The Impossible is far more than just a “white tourists’” perspective on the disaster – sure, by the very nature of the story we are following the plight of one specific Western family, but the director cleverly integrates the Thai community into the proceedings, showing the capabilities of the desperately overwhelmed medical staff and the selflessness of the local townsfolk, in spite of their own losses.
By the third act even the ‘based on the true story’ by-line starts to fray a little bit, with the confluence of events becoming all the more improbable and threatening to stretch your suspension of disbelief to breaking point, but that’s only to be expected in a film which cleverly avoids being overlong in favour of tying up things a little bit more neatly than may have been true to life. It’s a relatively minor complaint, though, for a drama which keeps you gripped from start to finish; boasts such emotionally charged performances; and has such a powerful, largely true story. Recommended.
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