Review: Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts struggle to survive ‘The Impossible’

One of the hardest experiences of the Toronto Film Festival for me was an afternoon screening of “The Impossible,” a remarkably well-made movie about an English family living in Japan who head to Thailand for the Christmas holidays, where they are caught in a sudden tsunami that is devastating, terrifying, an awesome display of nature’s greatest wrath.  The family is separated and the majority of the film is made up of their efforts to reunite in the middle of a mind-boggling crisis.

“The Impossible” is by Juan Antonio Bayona, working from a script by Sergio Sanchez, and it is an impressive, muscular production that more than pays off the promise of “The Orphanage.”  I liked that film, but didn’t love it.  I admire the way it’s made more than the particular details of the story.  It’s fine.  It’s solid.  Bayona and Sanchez both have aimed higher in their second collaboration, and “The Impossible” is so aggressive about what it’s doing that it shook me up.  I had a near-physical reaction to some of the film’s most difficult imagery, and there’s a lot of it.  This is not an easy film to digest.  I would compare it to “Black Hawk Down” in that there’s not a lot of larger dramatic plotting going on in addition to the survival tale.  The whole point is to put the audience in danger, to make us feel what these characters feel in a very immersive and physical manner.  Survival is the story here, as well as the reunification of the family.  It is hard to imagine anyone arguing against the skill on display in the way the film is brought to life.

There’s the cast, for example.  Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts seem well cast in the early stretch of the film, a solid couple more than settled into marriage, their kids finally old enough to be somewhat self-sufficient.  They are enjoying the holiday, with some visible stress fractures that they’re working on in their relationship.  It’s the standard stuff, worries about money and the future, and I like the low-key energy of all the early material.  Their kids are all still young enough to enjoy family vacations, while starting to come into focus as people.  Lucas (Tom Holland) is their oldest, and he’s just on the verge of that stubborn adolescent energy, too cool for his little brothers, too young to do what he’d like.  Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) are still just sweet kids, thrilled to have time with both of their parents on the beach and in the pool and away from home.

One of the things that was absolutely a key part of the “Titanic” ad campaign that helped turn the film into a sensation was that fantastic shot of the guy falling the entire length of the boat, Kate and Leo watching him plummet, until he hits the propeller blade with his head and goes spinning in a different direction.  People tended to gasp in the theater when they saw that shot.  And I heard conversation after conversation that the time about how people saw it twice just to see the way Cameron staged some of the catastrophe.  The terrible carnage that Bayona portrays here will upset more sensitive viewers, and it’s made even more difficult because he’s so careful about laying his groundwork before the mayhem begins.  Bayona takes the time to really capture what a lush paradise Thailand is in the first part of the film, so when the tsunami does hit, the transformation from Heaven to Hell is pronounced and even more striking.  The actual staging of the tsunami is remarkable.  I’m not sure how they did it, and when I hear statements about how they did most of it as a practical effect and not digital, I’m baffled.  I’d love to see a full breakdown at some point, because it is staggering and terrifying.  Bayona has a dispassionate approach to the violence and gore in the film, which makes it more affecting.  It is not often that I have to look away from the screen, but there were two moments in this film where I got that swimmy dizzy visceral feeling like I was witnessing something real, not an image on a screen.  Bayona mines the material for the maximum visceral impact, but without being exploitative.  It is very matter of fact, and that may be worse in some ways.  When gore is over the top or silly or exaggerated, it doesn’t bother me at all.  Here, it’s used to show the human toll in a disaster like this, and it’s deeply upsetting.

I did have one major issue with the film.  At one point, a character makes a choice that I rejected completely as a parent.  I can’t imagine any parent, much less parents who are shown to be as involved and sincere as these, making that same choice, and it infuriated me enough that I felt myself disconnect a bit from the film.  That’s a personal reaction, though, and maybe it won’t bother you the same way.  I think Watts is very good in the film, McGregor has a number of moments where he adds just the right amount of weight to what he’s doing, and young Tom Holland is exceptional in his role as the oldest son.  You could make the argument that Holland is the actual star of the film.  I think he’s got the most screen time, and in a movie that makes some tricky perspective shifts, his is the POV that seems to drive the film most completely.  You may also find yourself frustrated by the way the movie almost treats the separation of the family as an ongoing game, complicating it in ways that feel occasionally artificial and forced.  Even so, “The Impossible” is an experience I can’t imagine audiences easily shaking, and it’s going to stick with me for a long time.

“The Impossible” opens December 21, 2012 in limited release.