It starts slowly, even innocently. A gust of wind catches a torn page from her book. Birds take flight and head inland. Then the glass starts to shudder as the tourists hear a faint rumble. People look up and the palm trees beyond the hotel tilt over and disappear. Then the ocean crashes over the building and swallows them.
The tsunami that devastated southeast Asia on December 26, 2004 killed more than 200,000 people across the Pacific, most of them in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The Impossible is a devastating film that is based on the true story of one family struggling to survive in the aftermath of the tsunami.
Maria and Henry are a well-heeled British couple vacationing with their three sons at a seaside resort in Khao Lak, Thailand. Henry (Ewan McGregor) is a businessman working in Japan. Maria (Naomi Watts) is a doctor who has given up her career to raise her three sons. When the waves crash into the resort, the family is torn apart as Maria and their oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) are swept away.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona, who made one of the best horror films of recent years with The Orphanage, does not devote much screen time in establishing the characters, but it is time well spent. By the time the wave hits at about the fifteen minute mark, we are already invested in the lives of this family. The first half of the film is spent almost exclusively with Maria and Lucas as they survive the initial catastrophe and try to make their way to a local hospital despite Maria's grievous injuries. Both Naomi Watts and newcomer Tom Holland are riveting in their roles. Watts gives her best performance since 21 Grams. In a way, the roles are much alike, with Maria believing she has lost her entire family except for her eldest son. Her fierce determination to survive for his sake is heartbreaking and uplifting.
The parallel narrative follows Henry and the two young boys, Thomas and Simon (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast) as they search for Maria and Lucas. Henry refuses to give up even though the odds are against their reunion. McGregor is also effective; the scene when he manages to call home and speak to his father-in-law is heartbreaking. The cinematography is not showy; for the most part director of photography Oscar Faura sticks with a Steadicam, which creates an intimate, you-are-there vibe. The family portrayed in the movie is based on a real Spanish family whose true life experiences form the basis of the film. Focusing on one family may be the only way to process the extent of the tragedy that claimed so many lives. The Impossible is an important film, and one of the best movies of 2012.