On December 26th 2004 most of us were recovering from over-indulging on Christmas Day with a well-earned leftover sandwich. Until we turned on the TV to the news that one of the biggest natural disasters in recorded history, The Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake, had caused tsunamis up to 30-feet high to decimate landmasses throughout the Indian Ocean. The tsunamis killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. One of the worst-hit places was the Thai coast where the events of The Impossible take place.
The film opens with some of these facts but ends with the words “true story” emblazoned across the screen. By the end of the film you will be left mouth aghast with tears streaming down your face at the sheer horrors that unfolded on that day and the ensuing months afterwards.
Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) have travelled with their three sons; eldest Lucas (Tom Holland), middle son Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and youngster Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), to an exotic Thai resort to celebrate Christmas. Gathered around the pool on Boxing Day, the tsunami strikes. Lucas and Maria find themselves battered, bruised and fighting for their lives amid the torrential water. Finally finding help, it becomes clear Maria is in urgent need of medical care and must rely on Lucas’ headstrong ways to save her from the disaster. Meanwhile Henry desperately searches for his family, refusing to let go of the possibility that they have survived.
The Impossible should come with a very clear and concise warning; this film is NOT for the fainthearted. From the opening blackness you are bombarded with the imminent arrival of dread; a low rumble building into a cacophony of sound so intimidating it warrants a sound design Oscar all of its own. Yet it is nothing more than a prelude of what is to come. When the tsunami hits, arriving on the horizon, obliterating trees and buildings in its path like something out of aGodzilla film, it is with a visceral smash that will leave you gasping for breath. We follow Maria and Lucas as they are thrown into the horrors, being swept along by the current, dragged under then ripped at by debris and detritus flowing all around.
Just as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan put us on the beaches of Normandy so director J.A. Bayonaimmerses us, to stomach-churning effect, into the carnage of a tsunami. Bayona is best known for his psychological horror The Orphanage and, while not labelled as a horror, The Impossible is perhaps the most terrifying piece of cinema this year. It is a survival thriller of the highest order with such a battering level of detail it makes 127 Hourslook like the literal walk in the park that it was. With every wave we witness Maria tossed around beneath the surface like a ragdoll, the sound of crunching bone and tearing flesh will haunt you for the duration of the film and long after.
And then the water subsides and you cannot help but think the worst is over. But screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez is not letting you off that easy. Indeed the narrative structure of the film is so perfectly planned and injected with dramatic tension you find yourself begging your deity of choice that something, anything, can pull these characters through the apocalyptic landscape. In places it becomes a little over-wrought, trying just that little too hard to pull on the heartstrings when the imagery that Bayona conjures is more than enough to leave you reeling. While Maria is ailing in the hospital Lucas occupies himself by helping others find their missing relatives; the young boy seemingly the only person paying any heed to the healing power of hope. It is in these moments, rather than the final act of ‘nearly misses’, that The Impossible will leave you devastated with emotion. Witnessing a young boy re-united with his father thanks to Lucas’ efforts is such a powerful image you’ll struggle to suppress that meteor-like lump in your throat.
Without fail the performances are awe-inspiring. Ewan McGregor, always strong when allowed to keep his native accent, is on career-best form. His everyman performance before the disaster only highlighting his distraught devastation after it. In one of the film’s punchiest moments, he breaks down on the phone whilst calling relatives back home to inform them of the situation, his utter helpless frustration shattering him in such a way as you want to leap into the screen and wrap your arms around him. Naomi Watts, at ease with a British accent, excels, as always, in the role of Maria. With every step she takes through the mud; bloody, bruised and looking like an extra from The Walking Dead, you feel every flinch of pain, every small movement an effort akin to a marathon. But she remains strong; the rock upon which Lucas’ strength is founded. Particularly good is young Tom Holland. Lucas is the pivot upon which his parents rest at opposite ends of the spectrum. At moments possessing the conviction of his father at others the caring and affectionate ways of his doctor mother. Holland is nothing short of a revelation for one so young. Carrying the story for long durations of the film with a sense of innocence reborn out of the devastation around him.
At this time of year, prestige films jostle for place at the numerous award ceremonies just around the corner. The Impossible does not try and tell an epic story to manipulate the voters. Instead it tells a deeply intimate story of one family’s struggle for survival against the odds and the wrath of Mother Nature. Suffice to say that the three leads of McGregor, Watts and Holland should all be recognised for their efforts while Bayona’s staggering visuals should see him get much-deserved recognition.
For some The Impossible will be too much; a film that dunks you under the raging waters of a disaster that we were only witness to via helicopter news footage and shaky mobile phone moments. Here, it’s in your face, choking you with filthy water, saturated in death and destruction. It is a film that demands attention for bringing to life a moment too easily forgotten. The Impossible is just that, a film and story that by all accounts should not exist and yet, by some kind of miracle it does.