Based on the harrowing true story of one family caught up in the 2004 tsunami, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) returned to screens last year with The Impossible (Lo imposible, 2012), a gruelling yet uplifting tale of human endurance amidst a cataclysmic natural disaster. Much was made at the time of Bayona’s decision to change the aforementioned family’s nationality from Spanish (Belón) to British (Bennett), presumably to make the film more saleable in English-language territories. Claims of ‘white-washing’ still remain slightly misplaced, but there is something missing from this well-intentioned drama.
Maria (Naomi Watts), husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) and the married couple’s three sons (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast) are en route to a popular Thai coastal resort for a much-needed winter vacation. After spending an idyllic Christmas Day together, the holidaymakers begin their Boxing Day relaxing around the complex’s pool. Suddenly, a terrifying roar rises up from the direction of the beach, followed by the alarm calls of native wildlife. As mother Maria halts in confusion, a wall of seawater races toward herself, Henry and the children. Separated from one another by the sheer force of the tsunami, the Bennett family face near-impossible odds in order to be united once more.
Bayona’s horror sensibilities certainly come to the fore in the film’s opening third, with a patient build-up giving way to all-out terror in the face of nature’s might (courtesy of some remarkable effects and sound design). Dragged underwater and pummelled by debris (several close-up shots of deep lacerations are certainly not for the squeamish), it’s here that The Impossible’s depiction of the tsunami’s physical devastation is at its most visceral – and most potent. Several particular moments do perhaps feel more suited to the recent Evil Dead franchise reboot rather than an emotive portrayal of human survival, but on the whole Bayona keeps things raw, powerful and on the right side of tastefulness.
Once the putrid waters subside, however, The Impossible does seem to drop gears into a far more conventional post-disaster movie. When embarking upon a cinematic representation of a recent, real-life catastrophe, ‘conventionality’ isn’t necessarily high on a director’s priority list (accuracy and sensitivity should clearly top the agenda). Regardless, there is a sense as the film progresses that Bayona, in wanting to find a mass market for his big-budget Spanish production, made several creative choices tailored more to the Academy’s palette than his own. Watts and McGregor both put in fine performances here, but are ultimately outshone by their child actor counterparts – less recognisable to audiences, and all the more believable for it.