Sometimes we hear of films being based on a true story or actual events, but it is difficult to not view The Impossible and not remember the real tsunami that struck Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004. Those of us who recall that and the images we saw on TV know this was a real disaster, and Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has brought to the screen a powerful, devastating, and truly life altering story of Maria Belon, a survivor of the disaster that struck her hotel in Khao Lak, Thailand.
A luminous Naomi Watts plays Maria Bennett, a doctor from the U.K. who is on winter vacation with her husband Henry (an excellent Ewan McGregor) and sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). At first it seems like the most ideal vacation imaginable. They enjoy the tranquil waves, the lovely resort, and each other’s company. They open Christmas presents and then release illuminated balloons into the starry night sky, everything seemingly perfect as can be.
The next day they are all sitting around the pool. Maria is reading a book, and suddenly she notices birds flying away quickly as the wind picks up. A page is ripped from her book, and she gets up to get it. Her son Lucas runs to fetch an errant ball, while Henry and the other boys are in the pool. Palm trees start falling and then out of nowhere a huge wave changes life as they know it forever.
Maria and her eldest son Lucas are swept away in the water. Bayona focuses on this one story instead of trying to encompass the widespread destruction and devastation of so many people and families. In doing so Maria and Lucas’s story is a microcosm of the loss of so many. The adapted screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez captures the despair of a wounded Maria and her son as they struggle to survive as another wave hits and all seems lost.
Watts (nominated for Best Actress) gives her best performance to date as a mother who clings to life in order to make certain her child survives. Her work here deserves the recognition because each moment of pain and agony is utterly believable and is the heart of the movie. I cannot say enough about young Holland, who plays Lucas. His bravery and determination to save his mother is the soul of the film. Together they make a pair of survivors we want to see overcome the overwhelming odds against them.
As the story progresses we do move away from Maria and Lucas and get to see other survivors, many of whom are orphaned children. We also witness the small local hospital and its staff trying to cope with hundreds of victims, some of whom are beyond help. Bayona captures their frustration but also their dogged efforts to do their best under horrific circumstances.
For those of us here in the New York area, viewing this film is unsettling because we can relate to having survived our own tsunami (Hurricane Sandy brought this kind of devastation here). I think many people will cry when they see this film because of Bayona’s fine direction and the impressive acting, but New Yorkers in particular because it strikes close to home.
The chaos, the hopelessness, and destruction are all chronicled here, yet the uniquely determined human spirit and will to survive is what makes the story unforgettable. You will be haunted by the way a family can be ripped apart, but you will also remember a mother and son’s bond and love that bring them together in order to survive.
How the simply amazing cinematography of Oscar Faura and Fernando Velazquez’s exquisite and haunting original score are not nominated for Oscars boggles my mind. I also do not understand how The Impossible was also not nominated for best film. I mean, I enjoyed Django Unchained but it is in no way in the same category as others nominated this year, but The Impossible certainly deserves to stand among them.
I have sometimes heard a film can be life altering, and I must say that is true of The Impossible. Go see it and realize the fragility of life and how in one second your whole world can be changed forever. I guarantee you will feel changed too as you walk out of the theater and want to run home and hug those who are dear to you. I know I did.
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