Dir. Juan Bayona / 114 minutes / Cert 12
Juan Bayona follows up his acclaimed 2007 directorial debut The Orphanage with another horror film. Whereas the fear factor of his first feature emanated purely from the otherworldly and the supernatural, The Impossible brings the horror much closer to home, drawing on real-life events, specifically the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that devastated Indonesia and surrounding areas and claimed over 230,000 innocent lives. I remember watching the television news coverage at the time - my confused fifteen year-old self unable to quite understand what I was seeing, unsure of what it meant and what was going on.
The film creates immediate tension because everybody knows exactly what is going to happen. As an audience, we are powerless, simply awaiting the inevitable; the fatal wave is going to hit and there is nothing we can do to stop it. The fact that our main characters, the Bennett family - father, mother, their three young sons - are blissfully ignorant of the tragedy that is about to befall them (as of course were the quarter of a million unsuspecting victims) only serves to reinforce the sense of dread that hangs over the film's idyllic opening scenes; scenes depicting the calm before the storm, introducing us to a close-knit, moneyed middle-class family, holidaying for Christmas in a luxury apartment. Lanterns illuminate the sky. Celebration, laughter and love, things we take for granted. They have everything, want for nothing... and then the ground starts to tremble.
The reconstruction of the disaster is painful to watch, beautifully repellent and brutally realised. To call it impressive almost seems crass and insensitive, but considering it was shot using no CGI whatsoever deserves some sort of recognition come Oscars night. Obviously, no film dramatisation can ever even remotely approach the abject horror of the real thing, but there's no denying the emotional wallop of the film's extended key sequence. The tsunami itself lasted for almost ten minutes, and Bayona here allows events to play out in real time; the ten minutes stretching out like an unrelenting nightmare, a haunting eternity. Water floods the screen. Never-ending chaos reigns. Broken bodies are swept away like leaves on the wind. Lives become nothing; ripped apart and destroyed forever in the blink of an eye. Hundreds of thousands of untold stories reach horrible, untimely ends. At various points, the cinema winced collectively at the savagery unfolding on screen and for once I was glad of the stench of nearby nachos that filled the air as it reminded me that I was safe, rooted and rigid in my seat.
Judging by the reaction in the (almost full) cinema, I wasn't alone in finding this film deeply upsetting. Towards the end, the tension was palpable, the silence broken only by the sound of many a sniffling nose. The fact that the film affected its audience is a testament to the strength of the central performances from Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor who were both outstanding. Anybody who has seen Mulholland Drive (2001) or 21 Grams (2003) won't need any convincing of Watts's acting credentials, but McGregor's unexpectedly heartbreaking performance as a father in search of his missing wife and son came out of the blue and rather knocked me for six. Recently McGregor has been taking it easy, playing the tweedy leads in romantic comedies such as the enjoyable Beginners (2010) and the endurable Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011), so for him to turn in such a standout performance was a real surprise for me. Likewise, I can't not mention newcomer Tom Holland, who plays eldest son Lucas. At the beginning of the film, Lucas is your typical angst-ridden teenager, but the tsunami strips away all of his cockiness and reduces him to a terrified lost little boy looking for his mother. It's always a good sign when you find yourself immediately browsing the Internet to find an actor's other credits as I found myself doing last night. I was pleased to see that he's already picking up a few awards for his performance.
I think the measure of a good film can be judged on how it leaves you feeling afterwards. A good film stays with you. By the time the credits rolled on The Impossible, I was slumped in my seat, utterly drained. Had I enjoyed the film? Did I approve of the narrative need to find closure in such senseless tragedy? Did the happy ending trivialise a disaster that destroyed so many lives? Do I ever want to see this film again/ I suppose I left the cinema pondering humanity - shown here at its most weak, vulnerable and defenceless, but also at its most brave, resourceful and noble. The camaraderie, the community spirit, the coming together of broken souls in dire times (many of the survivors in fact played by real-life survivors), in my opinion, validates the existence and relevance of this film. Yesterday was New Year's Day, a chance for new beginnings, so perhaps I was feeling more self-reflective than usual, but I came away from The Impossible with one thing going round and round in my head: life is precious.