During the Christmas of 2004, the third largest earthquake ever recorded triggered a huge tsunami in the Indian Ocean which took the lives of over 200,000 people and affected countless more. The Impossible seeks to explore the sheer horror and magnitude of the real life catastrophe by affixing the audience into the lives and emotional experience of one particular family, who find themselves split in half after the wave’s initial impact with their holiday resort in Thailand.
The Bennett family, led by mother and father Maria (Noami Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor), are based on the real life family of María Belón and Enrique Alvárez , with the former being heavily involved in the film’s production. Director Juan Antonio Bayona and many others involved with the making of The Impossible have cited the universality of the story being told as the reason for not specifying the nationality of the original Spanish family in the film (there is some clunky dialogue in the beginning to try and paint the family as origin-less, travellers without a definite home – although they are quite clearly British). It’s a contentious issue, one which we don’t feel entirely qualified to delve into at great length. We were certainly worried in the film’s opening that The Impossible would be an entirely white, middle-class experience of a tragedy that affected people of all walks of life, something not entirely helped by the less than subtle allusions to the family dynamics in the introductory scenes. Mother is a doctor who won’t let her eldest son drink a sugary coke when there’s perfectly fine water to be had, whilst husband and wife debate on the plane as to whether they set the house alarm before they left. It’s all very hokey and awkward, but all signs of this disappear once the devastating waves make impact.
From here on out, The Impossible really finds its footing. The tsunami scenes are nauseating and claustrophobic, with the sheer brutality of the event never in question. Despite its frequent categorizing as such, The Impossible is not a disaster film. This is not an escapist piece of adrenaline-fuelled cinema without consequence or heart. This is a ruthless and visceral reconstruction of real life catastrophe in our recent memory. When tree branches pierce the skin of our heroes, they do not brush it off. We feel the impact as an audience. The mortality of Maria and her family is inescapably evident. Indeed, the three children’s realisation of their parents’ mortality is perhaps the strongest emotional through line in the film. The eldest boy Lucas (a confident and assured performance by youngster Tom Holland) finds the image of his mother in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami as she stands before him bleeding and exposed so shocking he turns away admitting “I can’t see you like this.” It’s a heartbreaking line that resonates throughout the narrative, especially when both parents admit to being scared to their children.
Ewan McGregor gives one of his best and most emotionally exhausting performances in recent memory, but the film’s strongest scenes lie with Watts and Holland as the isolated Maria and Lucas. This is no surprise, as the relationship between mothers and sons was expertly and beautifully handled by Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez in their previous collaboration, 2007’s The Orphanage. Also similar to that Spanish language film is The Impossible’s delicate balance between visceral horror and devastating emotional investment, with the narrative constantly teetering between both.
All in all, The Impossible rises above its clunky opening to deliver a disturbing and passionate account of a large scale disaster, which, whilst it focuses for the most part on one family, manages to convey also a heartwarming sense of community and strength in the face of adversity, whilst never diminishing the utter horror of such events.