Don’t go lightly to this very good movie. “The Impossible” tackles the job of conveying the terror of the 2004 tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people along a coastline of 3000 miles. In an acting and special effects challenge littered with pitfalls, the filmmakers win at every turn. Director Juan Antonio Bayona’s extraordinary cast scares us witless with wise, gentle performances. They all understood that in the shadow of the tsunami, even a whiff of melodrama or overstatement could ruin their movie.
The ordeal of a single family becomes an abstract for the whole catastrophe. Because the characters are drawn so quietly in the face of tragedy, the story absorbs us with the tug of universal emotions: maternal compulsion, the instinct to help, paternal protection, primal fear. The special effects team has sent a wall of water of unfathomable power straight to the audience. When your inner voice tells you that no one could have survived, remind yourself that an actual family of five did just that.
Director Bayona introduces us to the Bennetts as they land in Thailand for a Christmas vacation at a luxury resort. On the day after their Christmas celebration, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) play happily in the pool with sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast.) Though we know it’s coming, the roar that starts as a whisper is even more frightening that we might have imagined.
Maria, badly wounded, and son Lucas reunite in the treacherous water and from that point forward become partners in emotional and physical suffering so delicately rendered that only the most cynical could remain unmoved. Young Tom Holland manages to show us the love and respect he feels for his family through the smallest details and expressions. He carries the movie with the intelligence and understanding of a person who, at 13, is already a deeply fine human being.
Naomi Watts is superb. From the fierce maternal drive that lets her plunge after her son as the water carries him away, to the sustained bravery and continued nurturing she offers from her hospital bed, she never once over plays. From there she teaches Lucas to help others in the hospital including a lone small toddler. Once again Tom Holland invests Lucas with a blend of bravery and fear that left me wondering at movie’s end how he could possibly have understood so much at his age. Watts and Holland make this movie soar.
As the younger brothers, Joslin and Pendergast will stun you with their sweet, innocent acceptance. Ewan McGregor is fine in the smaller role of a father searching for his family. He has a goal, and he perseveres.
“The Impossible” is a triumph for the actors who grasped the tone their director intended. Because they managed that, the story reaches past the filmmaker/audience equation of show/react and embeds itself in our collective imagination where it tugs mightily at our own fears.
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