Depending on which way you look at it, The Impossible, starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, is either a voyeuristic spectacle of human suffering, or a gut-wrenching but ultimately moving tale of courage and survival. The truth is that Spanish director Juan Antonia Bayona shrewdly alternates between both approaches for this real-life account of a family swept away by the deadly 2004 tsunami that hit South East Asia.
McGregor and Watts stars as Henry and Maria, an English couple on holiday with their three boys at a Thailand beach resort. This paradise of golden sand, clear waters, and cloudless blue skies is ravaged when catastrophe strikes the day after Christmas.
The tsunami sequence, evidently created with the help of nifty special effects, is the film’s most harrowing, visceral portion…at times hard to watch, especially when Maria is tossed, twisted, and bludgeoned by the speeding currents, her skin flayed by debris. Badly injured but reconnected with her oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland), she struggles to make it, even as the fate of her husband and two sons remains uncertain.
Despite heartfelt, understated performances from both McGregor and Watts, and a terrific turn by Holland as a kid thrust with responsibility far greater than his years, The Impossible occasionally feels heavy handed and melodramatic. The family’s trauma is presented in excruciating detail, the camera lingering over every physical injury – particularly Maria’s – to emphasize the suffering. Worse still, in focusing so exclusively on this white family, and only fleetingly on others (all tourists), the filmmaker completely overlooks the impact of this disaster on the thousands of Thai locals rendered homeless, injured, and bereaved.