Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their children are spending their Christmas holiday in Thailand. When a devastating tsunami hits, however, the family is separated and a frantic search begins.
The Impossible is based on the true story of a Spanish family and their experiences during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. While the audience knows this from the start, however, it is never obvious how their story is going to end.
While it would be simple for the story to revolve around the parents of the family and their search for their children, The Impossible takes a darker road. Each parent ends up with some of their three children, but the parent/child relationship is quickly turned on its head when Maria is injured. Naomi Watts plays Maria as a woman who is terrified but brave and desperately trying to be strong for her son who is, almost unbeknownst to her, rising to the challenge. The audience can almost feel Watts’s pain, but it never goes into the realm of cheap or hammy. Instead, Watts allows the simplest of words and statements to convey how her power has been stripped away by the power of the tsunami.
Ewan McGregor takes a different stand; Henry is not physically as badly injured as his wife, but his sense of loss and heartbreak at being separated from his family are heartbreaking. No man cries on screen like McGregor, so when he loses his cool, the audience is right there with him. While this may not be a stretch for McGregor, it is a powerful performance as a man who believes he has lost everything but will not give up hope.
The real revelations here are the kids. Tom Holland as Lucas is a child on the cusp of adulthood, who finds himself having the rise to the challenge of keeping his family together. The child in Lucas desperately and selfishly wants to cling to the familiarity of his injured mother, but the young adult in the character knows that he has to help others if at all possible. Holland is the emotional and narrative centre of the film and he does astonishingly well. Oaklee Prendergast and Samuel Joslin, as the youngest children in the family, are equally as strong.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona is best known for directing the 2007 horror film The Orphanage. It seems that Bayona’s training in the world of horror has come in handy for The Impossible as he ramps up the tension throughout the film. Small payoffs are allowed, but it is not until the final minutes that the audience is finally allowed to relax. If the film were not based on a true story – and if the audience did not know this – the ending would seem a little too convenient and twee, but as it stands, this is a film that takes a microscopic look at a devastating event that killed thousands of people without warning. Yes, the question is there that the film centres on a foreign family with money, and while this raises some issues, the power of the story is that it is a human drama and no-one was exempt from the brutality of this disaster.
It is beyond doubt that The Impossible is a tearjerker, but strong, moving performances and the power of a true story make this film work. You will cry, but this is the power of affecting drama films.