After delivering a heartfelt and chilling ghost story back in 2007 with The Orphanage, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona makes the jump to English language features with The Impossible. Based on the horrible true story of the tsunami that occurred in East Asia on Boxing Day 2004, the film follows a family who are on holiday in Thailand when the disaster strikes. Separated by the crushing water and devastated landscape of the previously picturesque location, the family try everything they can to be reunited with one another.
What may seem from the outside like a tasteless film that’s only interested in exploiting a tragedy for the sake of weepy entertainment is actually handled with a lot more tact and respectfulness. If you’re going to make a film about such a horrendous ordeal then there’s no getting around the fact that the horrors of what these people went through have to be shown on-screen. Attempting to cover up the terrible reality would be the real tasteless act.
Out with the thunderously effective tsunami sequence itself (which is made all the more impressive by the fact that it was largely shot practically), it’s the performances from the likes of Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and relative newcomer Tom Holland that lends the film its real power. You really feel for them not just being caught up in this unthinkable disaster but in their determined quest to find each other among the carnage of the tsunami’s aftermath. The film almost solely concentrates on the Brit family, often at the expense of delving deep into how the whole thing has affected others, but while problematic it does provide a central anchor for the viewer.
A lot of people have taken issue with the fact that the nationality of the family has been changed from Spanish to British (which, it has been admitted, was a way to make it more commercial) but it’s really only an issue that, again, allows the film to be unfairly judged beforehand when in fact it works perfectly well in context. This is a story of universal survival that we all can relate to in some way as much as it is the telling of a very real ordeal, a film less about showcasing the devastation of the initial disaster for the whole runtime ala The Day After Tomorrow and more about the quest for resolution and being reunited with loved ones against all odds.
The film does go overboard in its emotion at times, however, allowing itself to fall into sentimental traps when it was doing fine without such overdone emotional manipulation. Too many scenes of tears slowly falling down Watts’ cheek as she gazes at the tragedy around her, for example, take away from the overall believability and threaten to pull you out of the film. Thankfully these moments are in the minority as there are far more emotional scenes that are handled superbly, with one scene involving McGregor’s desperate father making a phone call back home standing out as a heartbreaking highlight.
Not without its flaws, The Impossible is perhaps not the masterpiece made out of a tragedy as something like United 93 was, but at the same time it’s not at all the exploitative mess it so easily could have been. Some manipulative missteps aside this is a powerfully acted and affecting film that grabs you as much with its visceral reality of a terrifying disaster as much as it makes you care for the people it focuses on.
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