[Review] – The Impossible

4 Jan

The Impossible

Title: The Impossible
Year: 2012
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez, based on a story by María Belón
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
MPAA Rating: PG-13, intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity
Runtime: 114 min
IMDb Rating: 7.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Metacritic: 73

The Indian Ocean tsunami from December 2004 is one of the deadliest natural disasters the world has experienced, caused by the third largest earthquake ever recorded. The numbers speak for themselves: over 230’000 people dead in 14 countries, waves that were up to 30 meters high, an earthquake that lasted for nearly 10 minutes and that triggered other seismic movements as far away as Alaska, $14 billion donated in humanitarian aid. We know those facts, but what’s most amazing about that event are the human stories at the center of it, and in The Impossible, Juan Antonio Bayona‘s new film, one of the most inspiring ones is front and center.

It tells the real story of Maria and Henry Belon and their three children with whom they travel to Thailand to spend their Christmas break in a tropical paradise resort when the tsunami comes crashing down upon them. It’s a story of survival and heroism, about a family torn apart by one of the most devastating disasters the world has endured and about them having to find themselves again without ever losing hope. It’s a truly remarkable story and to see it on display in such a powerful film really makes for a compelling experience.

What makes it such a compelling experience, other than the amazing story, is the fact that the direction and two main performances on display here definitely rank among the very best of 2012. Mr. Bayona is honestly one of the most ridiculously talented young filmmakers out there, and the fact that this is only his sophomore effort (after the impeccable The Orphanage from 2007, one of the scariest films of the last decade) is mind-blowing when you consider just how many amazing things he still has left to deliver.

Then you have the actors playing Maria and Henry, and they just so happen to be Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Ms. Watts is just stunning here, and if she gets an Oscar nod I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. As we see Maria before the disaster during Christmas we see one of those modern women who has the wealth and the family but who’s still disappointed with life and looking for something more even if she can’t really pinpoint just what that is. During the disaster she finds it, she finds that connection to the world and to others and every single moment Ms. Watts is on screen is just full of heartbreaking honesty and intense emotion. She is, without a doubt, one of the very best actresses we have working today.

As for Mr. McGregor, he too is in damn fine form here. He’s an actor who, for the most part, chooses seriously varied projects that you get the sense really spoke to him, which in turn allows him to deliver really connected performances. The stuff he does in The Impossible is no exception, and it certainly ranks amongst his best performances, just a raw and finely nuanced performance that’s so pure that it never once falls under the melodramatic trappings that abound in a story like this. There’s intelligence here, there’s charm, there’s profound emotion, and how it’s all delivered really adds to the effect of it all.

Those melodramatic trappings I speak of in the paragraph above are of course pretty much the norm when you have a movie that deals with a real story like this. And seeing a director and his actors avoiding them so deftly is truly something to behold, and I was just tremendously impressed by this whole thing. I do have to say, however, that the screenplay of this film isn’t as great as the performances or the direction, and it does falter a bit and is probably what prevents me from giving this film a perfect grade. Not to say it’s bad, it’s far from that, I just thought it didn’t match the uniform greatness on display by the other elements at play here.

The disaster we see here was also seen in another great movie, Clint Eastwood‘s Hereafter (a film I have a great deal of affection for), and as majestic a sight as that was, the way it’s seen in The Impossible is far more impressive. Not only because visually the whole scene is just startlingly stunning, but because we see it through the eyes of characters that are portrayed with such depth by these great actors, we feel the plight of these people. Especially easy to connect to is Lucas, the eldest Belon son played so wonderfully by Tom Holland, the kid is just outstanding in this role.

I’ve heard people complain about this movie being about these wealthy and beautiful Europeans when not even 5% of those killed were foreign tourists. Well, here’s what I have to say about it. On the first hand, I would say that the story it’s based on was indeed experienced by a foreign couple on vacation, a statement you may rebuff by saying that that couple was actually Spanish and Mr. McGregor and Ms. Watts aren’t. But the thing is, what nationality they are from doesn’t matter, and Mr. Bayona has made it known that he doesn’t specify that a lot because it’s a universal story. I would also suggest that these are our lead characters because these are privileged people, and it drives the magnitude of the disaster home even more when you see that in those situations privilege is thrown right out the window.

Of course the real reason as to why we have beautiful people with recognizable names and lovely English accents is purely a commercial one. Because big name actors are what get the people to invest and to go to see the movie and because a film like this, though mostly made by a Spanish team, needs that to be made, and I’m more than fine with it. And so should everyone else really; the fact is that this film got made, it’s a damn compelling story and, if not anything else, I think it has changed disaster cinema for years to come.

That’s how amazing the scenes of the tsunami coming are, how intensely you feel you’re right in there as it happens, and how torn you are during its aftermath. The film cost less than $50 million to make, which is actually quite a lot for an European production, but the fact that many Hollywood films with budgets more than three times that amount can’t come close to replicating what you feel as you experience the disaster on-screen here speaks volumes about the level of mastery of their craft the filmmakers put on display here.

I honestly cannot put into words the things that you see in this movie and how jaw-droppingly well-made they are; the moment of impact, the insane amounts of water just trouncing over everything in sight, the realization that you just won’t be able to hold on to your family members and the immediate thought that you don’t know really know if they’ll be alive or not. You feel all of that in The Impossible more than you see it, it takes digital mastery to bring the visuals home, but it takes a skilled director and two ferocious performers in commandingly physical turns to make you feel it.

Sure, there is a happy ending here, you probably knew that. And, again, maybe that was made as a commercial decision because that’s what sells, and if so then I’m fine with that. Yes, the wealthy and gorgeous white people survive as countless faceless ethnic characters die or are barely registered in the backdrop. I don’t care about that, this isn’t a documentary, it’s a tremendously moving film about a family, and sure it may get a bit to sentimental at times because of the screenplay, but it’s all directed by a guy with a helluva future in him who makes the most out of it all and who has Naomi Watts at his disposal giving a stunning physical performance, conveying so much with just her face. It’s impossible to resist that.

Grade: A

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