The Impossible opens to a black screen backed by immense and overwhelming sound. The disconcerting effect this creates sets the tone for the lengths director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) goes to in an effort to immerse his audience in these tragic events.
As a reconstruction of the tsunami, The Impossible is a visual triumph. Extreme long shots show the vast scale of the disaster, while underwater shots take us into the experience of struggling victims, fighting against the current and colliding with debris. The impact of the tsunami is anxiety inducing, in no small part due to Bayona’s attention to detail, and the tsunami sequence makes for very uncomfortable viewing.
Grasping hands and tortured faces are photographed beautifully by Oscar Faura and the immediate aftermath of the tsunami - it’s suddenness and the consequent shock of its survivors - is made weighty and compelling by Naomi Watts’ striking performance as Maria, mother of three.
The tsunami, and the chaos of its aftermath is largely presented from the point of view of Maria, whose lack of knowledge about what is happening to her dramatically heightens the tension. The state of the hospitals, the communication barrier and the sheer destruction is terrifying but Naomi Watts’ stellar performance carries much of The Impossible as it begins to play out in a much more predictable fashion. As the family’s father, Ewan McGregor puts in a fair performance, but claims just a single standout scene as he breaks down during a phone call home.
The Impossible is visually persuasive and evocative but, just eight years on from the disaster, is it too soon to dramatise these events? The Impossible clearly sits in the disaster movie category, with its rumbling bass and lingering shots as innocent holiday makers realise something is coming. It is these aspects of the film which make it, at times, uneasy viewing. Early on, Bayona plays greatly on the knowledge that we are aware of what awaits the holiday makers - from the family’s unease during their outgoing flight, to shots of the calm, sublime ocean, and the subtler, more interesting touches that see Maria reading Joseph Conrad.
When The Impossible steps over into the aftermath story, it begins to unravel and over-engineered suspense in the closing act make it feel entertaining rather than enlightening. Just as the as The Impossible begins to feel over-long, an indulgent dream sequence revisits the tsunami in an attempt to recreate some of the earlier drama and makes a much too fleeting glance at mental trauma. While this sequence is spectacularly shot, it adds little value and The Impossible begins to feel like a film grasping at straws. More moving is the film’s final moment, a touch that feels truly respectful of the immense loss of life.
Although based on a true story, The Impossible’s outcome doesn’t feel representative of a disaster that cost over 200,000 lives. Given that the real family behind this story are actually Spanish and replaced here by Brits, The Impossible seems like a Westernised interpretation that plays into Hollywood expectations.
The Verdict: Bayona’s tsunami reconstruction is powerful, immersive and difficult to watch.
Backed by a strong performance from Naomi Watts, the immediate aftermath of the disaster is convincingly handled but The Impossible begins to unravel as the family take centre stage. Visually, The Impossible is a worthy four star movie but, as a respectful account of the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day events, it feels much closer to a two.
Running Time: 113 minutes