The Impossible review

The ImpossibleReview by Doug Cooper
Stars Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Sonke Mohring, Geraldine Chaplin, Marta Etura, Johan Sundberg, Ploy Jindachote, Nicola Harrison
Written by
Sergio G Sanchez
Certification UK 12A | US PG-13
Runtime 114 minutes
Directed by JA Bayona

Director Bayona received much praise five years ago for The Orphanage. For his first English-speaking movie he deserves equal plaudits. Based on a true story, The Impossible is a corker – tense, gripping and absorbing. Bayona's confident handling, putting the audience in the thick of the situation and making them completely involved, reminds one of Steven Spielberg's work. The protagonists are a married couple and their three kids – all readily identifiable characters. And one is completely engrossed in their plight.

Why so? Because the Bennett family are spending their Christmas in a luxury holiday resort in South East Asia overlooking the ocean. It's Boxing Day 2004, the day the infamous tsunami struck. The hotel paradise is completely swept asunder by that huge tidal wave. Buildings demolished, many people dead. Maria (Watts) and elder son Lucas (Holland) manage to survive, but she has been badly injured and needs hospital care. The first half shows their troubled efforts at getting her to a safe place for treament. At the midway point we pick up with Henry (McGregor) again, who has managed to stay with the two little ones (Joslin and Pendergast). He is determined to find his wife and other child, sending the two infants up to the mountains to safety so he can look for them. But do they get there, and will he find them?

This is a gruelling movie that packs a sizeable punch. The heat, the texture, the chaos and the horror are brought home with considerable flair. Bayona is unafraid to go for big emotional highpoints. He isn't subtle in letting the music crescendo to manipulate certain moments – but there's nothing wrong with that when we're being swept along by the story with such deftness and vigour. We really feel for these people and their utter determination to get back together as a family, and their duress in this disaster is palpable. When Henry breaks down with uncontrollable tears when making a phone call to his dad I defy anyone not to well up. McGregor is completely believable as the father at his wits end, trying desperately to find his loved ones. He is such a natural, effortless performer that when he falls to pieces it is all the more alarming. Watts is equally convincing as the harried mother, slowly seeing her life slip away as her health rapidly deteriorates in the overcrowded hospital. This actress can do a lot with a little, seeing as she spends the second half on a gurney barely able to move.  She conveys the undying love for her boys and the single-mindedness to stay alive through a longing glance or a barely audible whisper, her forcefulness shining through despite the losing odds.

The standout performance however comes from Holland as the 14-year-old plunged into a situation he doesn't know how to handle. He adeptly conveys the fear and confusion foisted on him as he tries to help his mother, growing up very quickly as he comes into contact with the numerous adults who ask for his help as well as the stressed medical orderlies. He is a mass of contradictions, by turns selfish, idealistic, innocent and combative, the young actor instilling all this with unfussy aplomb - a most impressive accomplishment.

The opening 10 minutes or so, showing the tsunami striking isn't remotely like that of Clint Eastwood's Hereafter. This portrayal of the disaster sticks solely to the particular hotel and its inhabitants. The sound of the wave encroaching stirs a deep foreboding and then all the water crashing through destroying everything completely envelops you. We're plunged underwater, the sound of the trees collapsing and glass shattering as Watts is torn hither and thither is immensely claustrophobic and frightening. You feel as if you can't breathe. If nothing else, then this movie certainly deserves awards for its sound editing. It's brilliantly effective.

The Impossible is a first rate powerhouse, seizing you from the outset and never letting go. It's not pretty and it's not delicate but by God is it memorable. It achieves its aims with visceral precision and bulldog bravado. A splendid achievement not to be missed.

• The Impossible at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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