Movie review – Breaking the waves

2013-03-03 10:00

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The Impossible is an intimate tale of one family’s fight to survive the deadliest natural disaster of our time, writes Gayle Edmunds

Film: The Impossible (Nu Metro)

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona

Featuring: Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast and Ewan McGregor

Rating: 7/10

On the morning of ­December 26 2004, the lives of hundreds of thousands of souls were sacrificed to Mother Nature. The ­Impossible is the story of one Spanish family’s incredible, improbable survival of that tsunami that so many of us watched almost in real time on TV.

Relative newcomer director Juan Antonio Bayona, whose first film, The Orphanage, was a critically acclaimed horror, does better than a veteran director of disaster flicks might do because he gets the balance between horror and the resilience of the human spirit right.

Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is that it gives the audience a real sense of what it must have been like. To stand beside the pool one morning in an island paradise complete with palm trees and pina coladas, and to watch as a wall of water comes to wash you away, to churn you in a maelstrom of debris and beat you with chairs, branches and bodies, to pull you down to the bottom of the sea with wires, seaweed and sheer brute force.

The ferocity of this “attack” is mitigated by the fact that it is not personal. It is personal to the family, of course, but what makes it seem almost scarier is that it is simply an act of nature, a catastrophe triggered by the third-biggest earthquake every recorded.

There are no bad guys, just an awesome show of destruction from the earth. It is quite simply as humbling as it is terrifying.

Maria Belon says of her experience of telling her story so the film could be made: “I found myself not just at The Orchid, but sitting exactly where I was when the wave hit. The sounds of breakfast, the easiness of the tourists, the trust that the hotel is in full working order, a few guests making plans for the day … The situation was exactly the same in the movie version as it was in reality. It was a beautiful morning on our holiday, then life changed completely in a matter of minutes. I have so many mixed feelings.

They call it survivor’s guilt, I think. During the days I spent at The Orchid throughout the film, I had the chance to interact with some of the local people who survived the tsunami, to talk to them about it. It was such a shocking experience and I thought Bayona did a beautiful job of ­depicting it and my feelings about it in the film.”

Naomi Watts leads the cast as Maria, a mother and doctor travelling to Thailand on holiday with her husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor), and their three sons, Thomas (Tom Holland), Lucas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). Thomas is not that thrilled to be on holiday with the folks and is disconnected. That all changes when the wave comes. Thomas and Maria are thrown back together by the raging waters and having survived the initial onslaught, the real horror of what they face becomes apparent.

Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G Sanchez spent many, many hours with the family piecing ­together what happened. After such a traumatic event, they had reimagined some things and blocked out others. In the end though, the film makers have nailed it. “We’re not just dealing with a survival film. It also raises the question of who you want to survive for and in what way. There is something very powerful that goes beyond the tragic and speaks of the human condition, something that moves people very deeply when they hear the story,” he says.

Watts, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Maria, spent a lot of time with her real-life counterpart to prepare. While grieving for the husband and two children she thinks are dead, Maria must remain strong and focused for the child who is with her.

She has to appear less injured than she is to help Thomas cope with the enormity of what has happened. Though the audience knows the family survives, the tension is almost unbearable as the two halves of this family search for the other all the time, fearing and believing the worst: that they are dead. Meanwhile, their odyssey exposes them all to the kindness of strangers, as well as to the unkindness. There are great stories of sharing and caring threaded through the narrative, as well as a couple that are a disgrace.

The film’s authenticity is key and though the director says he began with a traditional disaster movie element – the ocean as monster – The Impossible is in the end an intimate story of survival. And for the Belon family, a catharsis.

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