06 January 2013

To Wish Impossible Things

"Enjoy the film," said the usher at my local multiplex as he checked my ticket and pointed me in the direction of screen four. I thought it was unlikely, but I just said thanks. I don't think many people will come out of Juan Antonio Bayona's new movie The Impossible and say that they enjoyed the experience, but not because it's a bad film, by any means; far from it, with great acting from Naomi Watts and Tom Holland, who plays one of her on-screen sons, as well as a good performance from Ewan McGregor.

It's just that as well as being compelling, brave and moving, The Impossible is incredibly harrowing for the majority of its 1h55 length. So much so that the aforementioned multiplex really should have selected its lobby music a little more carefully, because after nearly two hours of devastation and intense emotion, the last thing you want is to be bombarded with very loud, very jarring R&B. But I digress.

The Impossible is based on the true story of a Spanish family who were having their Christmas holiday in Thailand when the South Asian tsunami struck. In the movie, the family are British: Watts and McGregor play Maria and Henry Bennett, who have been living in Japan with their three sons, Lucas (Holland), Thomas and Simon. Apart from a little foreshadowing in the form of turbulence on the plane ride to Thailand, the opening few minutes allow us to see the family relaxing and enjoying their Christmas. The boys argue and Henry expresses concerns about his job, but they are happy.

When the tsunami hits, on Boxing Day, the family are at the beach. We see them all being swept away by the waters, but after we watch Maria being thrown around underwater, she surfaces, grabbing onto a palm tree and eventually spotting her eldest son, Lucas, struggling to stay afloat a short distance away. Mother and son reunite but in doing so, an aftershock leaves Maria with a seriously damaged leg. They have no idea where the rest of their family are. Together, they struggle to look for help, although with so much destruction and devastation, it's hard to work out which way to go. Initially, Maria is the strong one, but on seeing how badly his mother is injured, Lucas puts all of his energy into protecting his mother. He wants them to climb up a tall tree for safety, but then they hear the cry of a small child, a little blonde boy—because in the holiday resort depicted in this film, everyone is very fair—who has lost his parents. Lucas wants to press on because his mother has to be his priority, but Maria insists they take the boy with them.

It's hard to say much more without spoiling the film. I hadn't heard of the real Spanish family on whom the story is based, so I didn't know exactly what would happen, although the fact that the story had survived somehow, was something of a clue. Simon Mayo suggested that he film's title was a spoiler of sorts but I don't think that's true. For some reason, The Descent springs to mind, where (spoiler alert) in the original release at least, you think the lead character has managed to achieve what has already been established as an impossible escape, only to discover that actually she hasn't escaped, because we already knew she couldn't get out. So, I think The Impossible's title could either represent bleakness or hope, and doesn't spoil the film.

As I mentioned, there are some great performances in the film, with Tom Holland really standing out as the young teenager forced to become the adult in extraordinary circumstances. He was very convincing, conveying the desperate attempts at bravery interspersed with the fear and despair anyone in such a situation—especially anyone so young—would feel. Naomi Watts probably ought to receive an Oscar nomination for this too, and not just for the "challenge" of being covered in mud, blood and bruises for so much of the film (AKA the Charlize Theron award). The Impossible isn't an enjoyable film; but it's heart-rending, nerve-wracking and very good. Just don't forget to take tissues.

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