2012, Juan Antonio Bayona
When your debut feature is a wildly successful, inventive and surprisingly emotional horror film that crosses over from its native Spain and becomes a cult hit in the United States as well, there are a lot of directions you can take as a filmmaker. That’s where Juan Antonio Bayona found himself after his excellent spook story with a heart The Orphanage, and after a five year absence he has finally made his welcome return to the screen with a story that meant a great deal to him personally. In 2004, what became known as the Indian Ocean tsunami hit the countries of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand and resulted in one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. As many were caught in the devastating consequences of the tsunami, lives were lost and families were torn apart.
Bayona’s sophomore feature, The Impossible, tells the true story of one of those families, Maria and Enrique Belon, along with their three sons Lucas, Simon and Tomas. The nationality of the family was changed from Spanish to an unrevealed one for the picture that allowed them to cast more recognizable stars in the leading roles, case in point being the headliners Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor (whose character’s name was changed to Henry, seeing as Enrique probably wouldn’t be a believable fit for the Scot), and while the change did concern me somewhat before I saw the picture I have to say that I forgot about it almost immediately after it began.
In a way it could even be seen as beneficial to the project to have the nationality changed, as it gives The Impossible(aside from the obvious financial boost of having two A-list stars above the title) a more diverse range of people that we see devastated by this event and speaks to the universal themes that Bayona is intent on depicting. We focus on a white vacationing family, yes, but over the course of the picture we see all manner of race and nationality suffering and persevering through the aftermath of this disaster, and having actors who can ground this all within the more intimate framing of one family is vital to what makes The Impossible work.
In a word, harrowing is probably the best used to describe the impact of Bayona’s picture, starting off with the tsunami sequence itself, which is one of the most memorable events put on screen this past year. Coming from a horror background serves the director well here, and he wisely collaborated once again with many of the same crew that he had on The Orphanage, including writer Sergio G. Sanchez, composer Fernando Velazquez, cinematographer Oscar Faura, editor Elena Ruiz and sound designer Oriol Tarrago. Bringing with them the same kind of keen attention to detail and atmosphere that made The Orphanage such a thrilling experience, this crew is able to make The Impossible an absorbing thriller as much as it is an emotional family drama, which aids tremendously in the kind of massive impact that a sequence such as the tsunami itself has on the viewer. An overwhelming flurry of sound and image, the senses are swarmed by tragedy in this grueling experience, a frighteningly real display of a tragedy that would seem practically unimaginable if we didn’t know it to be true.
It was a surprisingly genius move for a director so adept at horror to take on this kind of story, as that attention to atmosphere thrives in making use of every sense to fully depict this shocking sequence. In the immediate aftermath the fear of these people remains so palpable, as every gust of wind or creak in the background is utilized expertly by Bayona and his crew to warn the characters and the audience that another wave could be coming, it could all still be happening, and that fear is almost too much to bear. Of course this experience is all aided by the gifted performances, in this sequence being those of Naomi Watts and the young Tom Holland, who plays eldest son Lucas.
Watts is heartbreaking throughout this sequence, starting with a guttural scream that sent chills down my spine as she is hugging onto a tree for dear life while being wrecked by the waves crashing against her body and splitting her apart from her family. However, despite having two name stars above the title, it ends up being Holland who takes on the leading role of The Impossible, as we see Lucas work hard to aid those who aren’t able to help themselves in the hospitals and the devastated remains of the vacation spot in the aftermath of the event. This is Holland’s first role in a motion picture and he shows a lot of promise here, as he treads the line early on between that annoying teenager and someone you want to genuinely care about, quickly evolving into someone sympathetic and real once the tsunami splits him from his family and alters his view on the world.
Watts and Holland both do deliver, but I have to say that Ewan McGregor was the standout of the cast for me and the actor here who had the largest impact. McGregor has been maturing greatly as an actor in the past few years and this is another step in the right direction for him. While the majority of the film gives focus to Tom Holland’s character, when perspective shifts to McGregor he makes you feel as though we’ve been with him the whole time. It’s hard to accurately describe the amount of pure heart in a performance, but it’s overwhelming in his portrayal here, and deeply affecting. His money scene is every bit as emotionally grueling as the tsunami sequence itself and it’s the only time this year that I’ve genuinely burst into tears during a film (it also may be the quickest I’ve ever broken into them).
All of that being said, The Impossible definitely isn’t without faults. I have a few minor complaints with some peculiar decisions and character actions made throughout the picture, but my only major complaint comes in the final stretch, as the narrative takes a turn away from the kind of grueling realism that shined through most of the picture and turns into everything that I would normally expect something like this to become. In that last act it makes an unfortunate turn towards cloying manipulation and eye-rollingly contrived setups that bring the audience one step closer to resolution before pulling them another step back, then one forward and onward. It’s very frustrating to see a film that was once so ideal in its human depiction of this tragedy turn into something cringeworthy, but thankfully this period doesn’t last a significant amount of time and it turns around to an emotionally rewarding conclusion that makes it all worth it.
While The Impossible does focus primarily on one family in the face of this tragedy, Bayona always makes a point to key into the lasting impact of the event and the universal themes that such an experience can have on a great deal of people. Wisely, the focus on one particular family allows him to ground it within characters who we quickly develop an emotional investment in, rather than trying to make this a drawn-out ensemble piece that attempts to hit every demographic necessary in order to broaden the scope as much as possible (although if you want to see something like that, you should check out the HBO miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath from a few years back). Bayona doesn’t ever allow us to think that it was only this family damaged by the disaster, though, and by the end we are made keenly aware that even if this harrowing event is over for this particular family (though the experience will stay with them for the rest of their lives), there are still so many out there struggling to find their own families and persevere through this catastrophic event.