Director, Juan Antonio Bayona, uses the backdrop of the catastrophic Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, to further explore the familial mechanisms of grief and survival seen in his fantastic horror fable, El Orfanato (2007).
Based upon the harrowing true life accounts of the Sanchez family, for whom fate dictated that they would be front and centre when that catastrophic wave of destruction hit Thailand, this is a movie imbued with hope, sentimentality, and an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of that most remorseless of beasts, nature.
Arriving from their home in Japan on Christmas Eve, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) are taking a break from lives as a successful, but unsecure business man, and full-time mother respectively. The three boys are in tow; eldest Lucas (Tom Holland), and his two younger brothers, Samuel and Oaklee. The bicker like all siblings do, rejoice at the receipt of Santa’s tropical delivery, and enjoy an old fashioned kick about with dad on the beach. They are remarkable in their normality. What happened to them isn’t.
From the moment the wave strikes, a brutal, frenetic sequence filmed using giant water tanks, and all the more breathtaking and awe-inspiring for it, we are witnessing a fractured family’s struggle to be reunited, perhaps through the filter of a Hollywood lens, but Bayona leaves you in no doubt as to the weight of emotional damage inflicted on this family, and more importantly, those on the periphery.
The opening 40mins is a relentless onslaught to the senses. Given a matter of minutes to get to know this family, it’s then all swept away in front of your very eyes. You take every gasp; feel every branch and bang of the head, largely thanks to some remarkable sound editing, and feel powerless to take in the horror that is been presented in front of you. This isn’t some grainy CCTV imagery running on a 24 hour news station, Bayona has made sure that the audience feel the full impact of what occurred that morning, never more so than in the treatment of Naomi Watt’s mother. Tossed around like a rag doll; pierced and punctured to wince inducing effect.
It is a committed turn from the actress, more physically impressive than anything, she suffers from a rather wooden accent during the films opening exchanges, but her silent bond with Holland is the real heart of the movie. The maternal relationship is clearly one that Bayona likes to work into the core of his narratives. Stepping from the stage after a lauded turn as Billy Elliot, Holland can’t quite shake the am-dram delivery learned from treading the boards. It’s asking a lot for the young man to carry such an emotionally exhaustive movie, and even though he’s not entirely convincing, he settles into the role as his character is forced to mature.
The Impossible is powerful stuff, it’d be hard not to be with such a recent tragedy to sensitively frame, and tissues should be complimentary for most viewers, but you cant help but feel that it’s a little too tv-movie-of-the-week in its over-earnest representation of characters, especially those on the periphery of the main events, and a script that cant quite do justice to a truly amazing piece of human endurance.