A wave breaks a family’s bond
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 21, 2012
The catastrophic nature of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that opens the fact-based drama “The Impossible” is rendered with nightmarish realism by Spanish director J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage”). The wall of water looks harrowingly real as it slams into the Thai resort where the film is set and where tourists Henry and Maria (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) are spending the holidays with their three young sons.
Equally realistic looking is the shocking aftermath: Maria’s bloody wounds from slamming into underwater debris; piles of human and animal corpses; uprooted trees and uprooted lives.
But what is rendered even more convincingly -- and with often heartwrenching poignancy -- is the anguish of separation experienced by Maria, who’s swept away from the others with her eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), and by Henry, who also miraculously surfaces, with no one nearby but sons Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast).
After the intense opening sequence, the rest of the film tracks the efforts of these two halves of a family to reunite in the chaos and confusion left in the giant wave’s wake. It’s not a momentous story about heroism writ large, but an intimate tale of the small acts of kindness and connection that can occur when people are most desperate.
It works, sometimes quite movingly, thanks to strong performances by Watts and McGregor. But Holland also is quite good as Lucas. The young actor manages a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of a child forced to grow up way faster than he -- or anyone else -- would ever have wished.
The film is studded with many tiny, lovely moments. In one, a German tourist (Sonke Mohring) lends Henry his cellphone so he can call home. It’s a short scene, but so brimming with emotion that it’s hard to watch.
In another scene, Geraldine Chaplin pops up, playing a stranger offering comfort to Thomas and Simon, who have relocated to a mountain for safety while their father looks for his wife.
Sitting under a star-lit sky, the woman explains to the boys that some of the points of light twinkling in the heavens are from distant stars that have since burnt out and that some of what they’re seeing might be light from something long dead. “How can you tell the difference?” one of the boys asks. “I don’t know,” she answers. “It’s a beautiful mystery.”
But “The Impossible” isn’t otherwise interested in cosmic mysteries, or courage, or even the ins and outs of how (and whether) Henry and Maria’s family survives. Rather, it’s about how life can suddenly shift our priorities away from the petty concerns that preoccupy us. It’s a movie that reminds us about what really matters, and why.
Contains intense, violent disaster sequences and brief nudity.