Acclaimed Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona makes his English-language debut with The Impossible, by far one of the most harrowing films you will ever see. Based on the true story of a family caught in the events of the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck the coast of Thailand (trailer here), Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor give powerful performances as the mother and father of three young sons, the eldest of which, Tom Holland, making one of the finest feature debuts in years (excluding his voice work on Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty).
The film opens with Maria (Watts) and Henry (McGregor) aboard a plane heading to Thailand on Christmas Eve with their three children (Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast) for their holiday vacation. They arrive at their villa and find themselves in paradise – sunshine, a swimming pool a stone’s throw from their doorstep, and a handful of fellow holidaymakers enjoying the fine weather for the festive season.
Early Christmas morning, we see through Henry’s hand-held camcorder the children being woken, followed by the ripping open of presents, enjoying all that Santa has bestowed upon them. The mention of Santa here early on in the film really hits home just how young the children are, and furthers the terror we know is just one day from unfolding. It was on Boxing Day in real life that the earthquake hit in the Indian Ocean back in 2004, causing one of the worst tsunamis in recorded history to hit the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and a handful of other countries.
In The Impossible, the parents and their boys are playing by the pool when disaster strikes; a moment of tranquillity followed by utter devastation, instantly separating the family. We first follow Maria as she is tossed around like a rag doll in the muddied water, crashing into nearby fallen branches, struggling to break the surface. After moments of isolation, she is mercifully reunited with the eldest of her sons, Lucas (Holland), who is scratched and bloodied, but in a slightly better state than his mother.
Thinking Henry and the other two boys to be dead, they desperately try to make their way to safety, rescued by the local people Maria’s condition is deteriorating and results in her being dragged in unceasing pain towards the hospital, peopled by thousands of equally devastated victims. By a similar grace, Henry is not only alive, but finds himself reunited with his youngest two boys, and having shepherded them to safety, he is determined to go back in search of Maria and Lucas, unable to leave them behind without knowing their fate.
These merciful graces need no suspension of disbelief as we watch events unfold, for we know the film is based on a true story. Whether you know the final outcome of the family in real life or not, the film is an incredibly moving, powerful portrait of one family’s struggle to stay alive in the devastating moments of the tsunami and the aftermath that unfolds.
Bayona’s direction is utterly unflinching, getting us as close to feeling Maria’s pain as is possible through the medium. The screen will always act as a barrier to a certain extent, but with such a talented director as this, it is almost as though we were there experiencing the reality and the horrors ourselves.
Speaking at the Q&A following the screening, Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez talked about the months of preparation and research they undertook in order to write and shoot the film, talking with survivors and discovering so many of their stories. They said that in the filming of one highly emotive scene, some of these survivors sat down with McGregor and told him their stories moments before shooting, and this intense emotion translates onto the screen when Henry breaks down amongst fellow victims in an incredibly powerful, heart-breaking display of emotion. McGregor gives an Oscar-worthy performance here that will move you to tears.
The Impossible is one of those rare films that comes along once in a blue moon. A Spanish production made outside of the studio system, it is a big-budgeted dramatic thriller-cum-disaster epic that is flawless in its delivery, from script through to production design through to the remarkable performances of all its cast. It is one of the most powerful, moving, and harrowing films I have ever seen, and I have every reason to believe that the same will go for you. This is one film that will have everyone talking in the months to come, and it is very much an absolute must-see as soon as it arrives in a theatre near you.