Unless you have been living under a rock for 9 years you will know about the devastating Boxing Day earthquake and consequent tsunami that ripped its way through many coastal towns, cities and islands in Asia and Africa. To say this was a global tragedy is an understatement; millions of people were directly or indirectly affected, whether they were born in Thailand, Sri Lanka or were holidaying in the area at the time. Nearly a decade on, the areas which were all but flattened by the tsunami are rebuilding, and many stories have evolved out of the event, one of which has been turned into the feature film, The Impossible.
At the helm of The Impossible is the Spanish director, Juan Antonio Bayona, famous for the tragic, mystery thriller, The Orphanage. In many ways, much like The Orphanage, The Impossible could be a Disney movie made for adults, and that is meant with the utmost respect. The beginning of the movie shows our family of protagonists – Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor), Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Sam Joslin), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) – enjoying their holiday on the idyllic beaches of Thailand; white sand, crystal-clear opal seas and glorious sunshine juxtapose the disequilibrium we know will shatter the lives of the characters. What we do get in these initial scenes are little character nuances that bring the family down to a human level; when they are checking their room, one of the little boys pulls off the plastic protective cover from a new light switch. These touches may seem pointless on the surface, but they help establish these characters as one of us and make their experiences even more difficult to watch and comprehend.
It is testament to the director that he deals with the eventual tsunami scene with absolute perfection. Almost everything we see is done with miniatures rather than CGI, and it just highlights the visual impact of practical effects; we are thrown in the blackened, rushing water with Maria and Lucas and it’s an extremely oppressive, harrowing procession of scenes. We are shown the massive devastation of the wave through a series of crane shots and helicopter shots, and the cinematography, be it colour tone, shot choice or what is actually in the frame, is fantastic. The whole cast throughout, including Ewan McGregor, deliver stunning performances, and on about half a dozen occasions I found tears were forming; maybe this was score doing its job, as this movie does have the music you would expect, but it was never overstated or overtly cloying.
It’s impossible to ignore the human suffering of the event, and the director doesn’t shy away from the gore on a number of occasions. One aspect of the movie that critics found problematic is that they changed the nationality of the family from Spanish to English. While this may be a studio choice for economic reasons (stars sell movies), the tsunami was a tragedy that struck millions of people, regardless of skin colour, wealth or nationality, and I think the director has made this movie a document on the global suffering, pain but eventual hope that came of the Asian tsunami, rather than solely about the family of protagonists.
The Impossible was not an easy watch by any stretch of the imagination. There were points where the intensity of the story really gets the better of you, but it’s not without little scenes of hope and the strength of the human spirit, so the pay off at the end is rewarding. As a movie experience it is definitely worth your time, but get some tissues at hand, because you’ll probably need them.