'The Impossible' Stirs Up a Tsunami of Emotion

I can't fathom the magnitude of the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2004. We've all seen the news footage, of course, and read first-person accounts from survivors. But how do you wrap your head around an event so cataclysmic that it killed more than 200,000 people? And how do you make a movie about it?

You don't, of course; destruction and loss of life on that scale are simply incomprehensible to those of us who haven't experienced it first-hand (and hopefully never will). What you can do, though, is zero in on one of the thousands of gut-wrenching stories that emerged in the weeks and months following the disaster, and none are more remarkable than what happened to Maria Belon and her family. Equal parts disaster movie, horror film, and melodrama, the Spanish production The Impossible is a harrowing and incredibly moving account of the family's attempts to reunite after the tsunami separates them. It's not always an easy film to watch, but it's immensely rewarding.

Considerable liberties are taken, of course, mostly for casting purposes. The nationality of the family has been changed from Spanish to British, with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor starring as Maria and Henry Bennett, a well-off couple on vacation in Thailand with their three children. We don't know much about them—Henry is a businessman worried that he'll be laid off, and Maria is a doctor who left her practice to raise the couple's sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), and Thomas (Samuel Joslin). On Christmas day, the young family is enjoying a posh, beachside resort on the Thai coast. On Dec. 26, they're in hell.

The family is playing in the resort's pools when, with almost no warning, a staggering wall of water crashes over and through the hotel. The less said, the better about the film's grueling, nearly 10-minute tsunami sequence; just know that it's as spectacular as it is terrifying, and deserves to be seen on a huge screen with a thundering sound system.

Maria and Lucas manage to stay together, but they're separated from Henry and the two younger boys; the mother and son assume the rest of their family has been killed. We know that Maria was injured by debris during the flood, but it's only when the waters recede that we see the gruesome severity of her wounds. Believing she's dying, Maria decides to use her last hours to teach her son to be the kind of man she hopes he'll grow to be, encouraging him to help other survivors in any way he can.

At this point, The Impossible switches gears and becomes a very different, much quieter sort of movie. There are none of the action sequences that form the bones of most disaster films. Instead, the movie focuses on the small kindnesses the survivors offer one another—a drink, a loaned cellphone. It becomes almost a fable of sorts, as the Bennetts reach out to other victims and are in turn helped and comforted by strangers. Director J.A. Bayona, who helmed the exceptional 2007 Spanish ghost story The Orphanage, orchestrates a brilliant balancing act, telling an intimate story without ever losing sight of the scope of the tragedy.

And what a tragedy it is. In spite of its PG-13 rating, The Impossible is as punishing as any film I've seen lately. The aftermath of the tsunami is often gut-wrenching; graphic gore is restricted to only a couple of scenes, but the physical and emotional suffering we do see is hard to take. Much of the film's impact is derived from the deft juxtaposition of brutality and grace; for instance, Bayona saves the most intensely horrific tsunami sequence for a flashback at the end, then tops it off with a moment of triumph that is almost indescribably beautiful. Manipulative? Maybe, but it's certainly effective. I'm not the sort who cries at movies—in fact, I'm usually the sort who laughs at the sort who cries at movies—but The Impossible had me choking back tears (or not) through most of its 114 minutes.

Though Bayona has only directed two features, he's already earned a reputation as a striking visual stylist. With The Impossible, he proves he's just as skilled when it comes to directing actors; every performance is exceptional, with Watts and Holland emerging as the two standouts. For all its technical bravura and stunning visuals, though, it's the relationship between them, punctuated by quiet moments of kindness and compassion, that makes The Impossible such a stirring experience.