The Impossible review

Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor take on the tsunami odds

There are horror movies and then there’s Juan Antonio Bayona’s ‘The Impossible’. Unlike director his chilling 2007 debut ‘The Orphanage’, it’s not a film about the supernatural. Rather, it’s a very real-life horror we’re dealing with – that of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed close to 300,000 people. Bayona, and his screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez, zero in on one family’s story of survival amid the utter chaos and carnage that this natural disaster unleashes.

[Related story: Reece Witherspoon writes fan letter to Naomi Watts]

Naomi Watts's performance that won over Witherspoon (Credit: Rex)
Inspired by the real-life terrors faced by a Spanish family – mother María Belon receives a story credit here – ‘The Impossible’ sees Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play British couple Henry and Maria Bennett. Together with their three young boys, we see them arrive in Khao Lak, Thailand, for what they hope to be a restful family holiday. In just minutes, Bayona sets up the touching family dynamic with simple gestures – Christmas gifts exchanged, games played on the beach.

What follows is an utterly harrowing ten-minute recreation of the tsunami, as the wave sweeps through the Bennetts’ hotel destroying everything in its path. Quite simply, McGregor’s father is left with his two younger boys, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), watching aghast as his wife and 12 year-old son Lucas (Tom Holland) are swept away. Brilliantly utilising special effects, it’s arguably the year’s best set-piece; so realistic you feel like you’re underwater, gasping for air. 

From hereon, audiences left utterly breathless, Bayona cuts back and forth between the two parties. With Maria sustaining horrific injuries, it’s up to Lucas to help his mother get to the hospital; meanwhile, amid the devastation and with communication lines down, Henry sets out to reunite his family. There are some touching scenes along the way – Henry forced to leave his two boys with others while on his search-and-rescue mission; Lucas recoiling away from his mother’s brutal lacerations; Henry’s tear-strewn gratitude as a fellow survivor lends him an almost-out-of-battery mobile phone to call home.

Bayona’s film is not the first time that terrible tragedy has been dramatised – from providing the spectacular opening to Clint Eastwood’s ‘Hereafter’ to the subject of the Abi Morgan-scripted two-part TV drama, ‘Tsunami: The Aftermath.’ But while Eastwood’s film used the event merely as a springboard into spiritual matters, and Morgan took the typical multi-character approach favoured by most disaster movies, ‘The Impossible’ is a more focused examination of just what it takes and what it means to survive.

With utter commitment from his splendid cast – particularly the Golden Globe-nominated Naomi Watts, who is always at her best when she’s beleaguered – Bayona sets up an utterly absorbing drama. Sadly, the film’s rather clumsy finale almost spoils what has hitherto been both moving and gripping. Perhaps in the rush to give us enormous cathartic relief after watching nearly two hours of terror, Bayona ratchets up the emotions, cranks up the swelling score and reinforces family values. It’s sub-Spielberg overkill, lacking the nuance of earlier scenes. But it doesn’t ruin what has otherwise been a remarkable testament to the human spirit.

Rating: 4/5