Juan Antonio Bayona
Sergio G. Sanchez, Maria Belon
Tom Holland, Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Marta Etura, Sonke Mohring, Geraldine Chaplin, John Sundberg, Jan Roland Sundberg,
PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity
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Spanish film director Juan Antonio Bayona has, in two films, defined himself as one of the best young voices working in film today. The Impossible follows a British family as they struggled to survive amidst the devastation caused by a surprise Christmas Day tsunami in Thailand.
Husband and wife doctors, Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) have brought their three young boys on a much-needed vacation to the coast of the Indian Ocean. In a resort populated mostly by rich, white foreign tourists, the brood fit in for a gorgeous afternoon poolside with nary a Christmas tree in sight and their holiday plans prepared for a beautiful vacation. That day, however, was not to be the one they had hoped for it coincided with the deadly tsunami that struck Thailand and other parts of the Indian Ocean on Christmas Day in 2004.
Separated by rushing water and dangerous terrain, Maria and their eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) travel as best they can on her severely wounded leg towards civilization and hopefully help. The first half of the film focuses on this pair as if Henry and their other two children were swept into the sea like so many others, yet any advance knowledge of the film, including trailers, will reveal that at least Henry is still alive and his chapter begins at the halfway point when he tries to seek maria and Lucas out.
Put aside the solid performances fo McGregor and Watts for a moment. This film features one of the strongest juvenile debuts I've seen. Holland is a natural star, keeping the audience's attention even when Watts is on screen. Conveying a complex series of emotions, he enraptures the audience with his survival instincts and we want nothing but his safety and happiness to be returned as soon as he can. Young actors frequently disappear into the background if not properly supported or become so excessively obnoxious that you lose interest in their success. Holland's natural serenity and strength of character help guide the audience through the film. Holland is the year's breakthrough young performer without comparison.
Holland's heavy lifting comes through the effects-lite portion of the film, which is a lengthy span. The trailer makes this seem like one action-filled sequences follws another, but after the first thirty-minute disaster sequence, there's little more than character drama to glance over. He carries it well even when ably supported by Watts and McGregor. The superlative Geraldine Chaplin has a brief cameo in the film, but she handily steals her scene from McGregor as a pensive survivor waxing philosophically. Her appearance defines the film's themes even when others might suggest otherwise.
The human drama that encompasses the large majority of the film isn't its defining moment. In thirty minutes, Bayona creates one of the most vicious, traumatizing and realistic disaster sequences in history. Avoiding the temptation to fill his piece with dramatic underscore that swells as our protagonists are tumbled and broken upon the various obstacles in the muddy waters of the invading ocean, Bayona removes all musical accompaniment for this portion of the film permitting loudness and utter silence to fill our senses along with visual stimuli that will leave you scarcely able to breathe.
And while I hestitate to dictate that this segment alone makes the film the brilliant piece that it is, the fact that it can go from something so thrilling to something so humane without seeming to be a part of two different films. Bayona's film doesn't have an explanation for why the film changed the nationality of the real life family on which the film was based, nor do I think it really needs to. A look at how others dealt with the tragedy, whether native Thai or foreigner, might have added a bit of depth to the film, but the focus was not on the tragedy itself, but how one family persevered through it. They didn't succeed alone and the film doesn't minimize all of the help they receive, but it's clear that Henry, Lucas and Maria are strong individuals whose love for one another helped them survive through adversity.
The Impossible is a fine work of cinematic expressionism and with this and The Orphange under Bayona's belt, I have little doubt he will develop further as one of the finest artists working in the medium today. Making genre pictures and disaster films accessible is only one thing that makes his work so fascinating. How he frames a film, gets under the skins of his characters and drives narrative cohesiveness without sacrificing cinematic entertainment or artistic creativity is a key sign of an excellent filmmaker. Just look at Spielberg after Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark and you'll see the kind of filmmaker Bayona could become and he might even be more consistently effective at it than Spielberg even if his output is more sporadic.
April 18, 2013