The 85th Annual Academy Awards are just two weeks away, and area film fans still have the chance to see three of the nine movies nominated for best picture (“Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and “Zero Dark Thirty”), and now that “The Impossible” is playing, they also can see four of the five women nominated for best actress. They are Sally Field in “Lincoln,” Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook,” and Naomi Watts in “The Impossible,” which just happens to be our movie of the week.
Although “The Impossible” actually opened back on Jan. 4, it has only recently made it to our area, and I am really surprised that it is not among the Oscar nominees for best picture of the year. The film is based upon the amazing true story of how the Alvarez Belon family managed to survive the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami disaster in Thailand as the Indian Ocean virtually erupted claiming more than 5,000 lives, leaving 2,800 others missing, and creating 1,480 orphans just in that country alone. (The total death toll approached 300,000.)
The film opens with a shot of the placid sea below an aircraft carrying Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor), his wife, Maria (Watts), and their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), en route to a Christmas vacation at the lush Kaho Lak resort in Thailand. Little do they know what horror awaits them.
The next scene shows the family relaxing at the picturesquely opulent pool overlooking the Indian Ocean. Henry and Maria are having a serious discussion about family finances while the boys are frolicking in the water. Finally Henry decides to put his worries on the shelf and takes his leave of Maria to play in the pool with the boys. And the following sequence is as riveting as it horrifying.
The first indication something is amiss occurs when the bartender’s electric blender suddenly stops working. Then a close-up of Maria’s face reveals the slightest breeze rippling through her hair. Next all the birds leave the area, and a stronger gust of wind blows a page out of Maria’s book and up against a glass sliding door. After she bends to retrieve it, she gazes past the pool toward the beach and sees the approaching towering wall of water that will turn her life into a living nightmare. (The special effects from this point on defy adequate description.)
After being engulfed beneath the raging waters for almost three minutes, Maria finally claws her way to the surface, and, gasping for breath, she finally manages to cling to a tree. Amazingly she ultimately spots Lucas, and after an agonizing struggle against the current, the two of them are reunited. But Maria’s leg is badly injured, and the remainder of the film deals with Lucas’s desperate attempt to save his mother’s life. In the meantime, Henry is with the other two boys and puts them on a truck transporting children to safety so that he can continue his search for Maria. How the family copes with overwhelming odds on the way to an eventual reunion is one of the most incredible stories you’ve ever seen.
After lulling you into a state of almost hypnotic relaxation with shots of the ocean, palm trees, sunshine, and tropical warmth, “The Impossible” suddenly shatters your state of tranquility as you watch the Belon family swept apart and battered and bashed by the relentless waves of the tsunami. From the point the wave hits until the conclusion, this movie will hold you riveted to your seat as you suffer through mental and physical and the emotional agony of the other family members.
Watts, who certainly is deserving of her Oscar nomination, turns in a remarkable performance in one of the most physically demanding roles imaginable. During the film her character almost drowns, suffers a crippling wound to her leg, and barely escapes death as a result of the ensuing infection. It’s a true testament to her talent that she makes us feel Maria’s pain every agonizing step of the way. In the production notes, Watts spoke about the difficulty of her part and offered high praise to Holland for his portrayal of Maria’s oldest son, Tom.
“I love the relationship that develops over the course of the film between mother and son and Tom is beyond a gifted actor. He has a talent that was so easy to work with and so inspiring. He lifted everyone’s game around him because he can do nothing but tell the truth. And we got into the horrible physical stuff of the tsunami early on. There really wasn’t much acting involved in that — we were being pummeled by water and debris, it was like the wave was dictating emotions — as it must have in real life. You couldn’t really speak. All you could do was feel and experience. But Tom and I had a couple of moments there where we came together, and I could tell how wonderful he was and what an incredible and fine ability he had. One of the greatest highlights for me was developing an on- and off-screen friendship with Tom and exploring this beautiful relationship between mother and son.”
While Maria finally ends up fighting for her life in a makeshift hospital, Henry continues his relentless search for her, and McGregor is consistently believable in his portrayal of a husband a father who refuses to give up on reuniting his family. Bringing a film like this to the screen is no easy task, but director Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”) and writer Sergio G. Sanchez (“The Orphanage”) were up to it, and in the production notes Sanchez explained what concerned him about the project.
“What scared me the most was telling the story of five survivors within a context where almost 300,000 people died made me wary. The most important thing for me was to find a way to respectfully tell a story about such a tragic loss that would affect the audience profoundly – to tell a dramatic, true-to-life story in which people could relate to this family and also to all those who lost someone – in the tsunami or in any way. Then we had to get the structure right, which was the hardest part. It was the most difficult element because we had five people with a shared story and we knew they’d survive at the end of the film. However the characters experience separation — they go through the whole process with grief because they assumed the other half of the family was dead. The challenge for us was to tell the story of the five members, but to maintain the tension that they felt, so those who don’t know the story are also on the edge of their seat.”
From its superb acting to its stunning special effects to its remarkable cinematography, “The Impossible” (Give it an emphatic 10.) is not only a remarkable motion picture, but it’s also a fitting tribute to the indelible strength of the human spirit. The story of the courageous Belon family is at once powerful, mesmerizing, and inspiring. And although the film offers superb entertainment, it also serves as a vivid reminder that if human beings are willing to delve deeply within themselves to find the inner strength they possess, virtually nothing is impossible.