If you were looking to describe The Impossible in a single word, “punishing”, “harrowing” or “gruelling” would do the job. Taking the audience and punching them in the gut, Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona (whose last movie was supernatural thriller The Orphanage) loosely recreates the true events of Boxing Day 2004, where a tsunami in Thailand tore both a continent and a family apart. Easy watching, it is not.
Filming as much as possible in a huge water tank (seriously), the tidal wave sequence and its accompanying destruction are recreated astonishingly well. Thanks to visceral effects work and evocative sound design, the film often functions as a wince-inducing assault to the senses which puts you right there with the survivors. You feel like you’re being swept underwater with shards of everything. You feel like you’re being dragged over broken bamboo. Hell, you even feel like shouting at the nice man who’s ‘helpfully’ dragging you over said bamboo.
But while The Impossible is undoubtedly the sort of picture that many will be impressed by, there’s not much to it. No subplots or underlying message, just a straightforward tale about a family who get separated by a disaster on holiday. That’s it. Putting aside inevitable complaints of Hollywoodisation (some will bemoan that it’s hard to feel sorry for the suffering of ‘privileged white people’), the acting deserves credit, though. Both Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are largely up to the task, but real praise should be directed at the youngsters on show, particularly Tom Holland as the oldest brother who’s forced to man up.