I’ve now, finally, gone on a search for reviews and articles about The Impossible from the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month. The majority of reviews I’ve read so far are VERY good, which is really exciting!!
Toronto: The Deals Are Slow, But This Festival Is A Rocking Good Time
Last night, as I was talking with director Juan Antonio Bayona and producer Ghislain Barrois at a Soho House afterparty, they asked me how the Toronto Film Festival crowd reacted at the end of their tsunami survival tale The Impossible. I had to be honest: Once a picture of the actual family that survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people was shown onscreen (the parents are played by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) and then the actual Belon family stood up to embrace Bayona, the crowd rushed to their feet for a standing ovation so fast and it lasted so long it was hard to tell if they were rooting for the harrowing film, the family that survived it, or both.
That’s what makes Toronto so great. There are so many surprises and this one reminded me of the way I felt when I attended the 127 Hours premiere, a movie that blew me away even though I didn’t really want to see it. And then hiker Aron Ralston took the stage with Danny Boyle and James Franco to explain how they pulled it off. Last night, Enrique Belon told me that he, his wife Maria and sons Lucas, Tomas and Simon actually enjoyed watching the film, though they admit it helped having watched production and an earlier screening to prepare themselves to relive a nightmare. And no, they don’t relive the nightmare in dreams each night, at least not anymore.
TIFF 2012 Review: THE IMPOSSIBLE is a Little Bit Soggy
“Just close your eyes and think of something nice” is a refrain repeated several times during J.A. Bayona’s Tsunami disaster film that sees Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts (and their three children) attempt to re-unite after a tidal wave destroys their hotel and threatens their lives. There is no arguing with the staging and execution of the disaster itself – a tour de force sequence that sees the camera, Watts and young Tom Hollander swept away in a river of debris-strewn water for an unrelenting 15 peril-laden minutes.
But the film itself seems to ignore that there are actual Thailanders in Thailand, and only focuses on ‘saving the white people’ for its runtime. Occasionally, a local will show up to help (having nothing better to do?), but the film only has eyes for Caucasians; not just the split-up McGregor-Watts clan, but other stranded European and American tourists. I’m not one to be easily offended by this sort of slanted storytelling, but it’s impossible (heh!) to miss here.
The film does little to establish the family, only implying that their finances are spread a little thin, and that Maria (Watts) is a doctor who is taking time off work to raise their boys, and that Lucas’s (McGregor) sweet Japanese job may be in trouble. This minor character development is literally swept away by larger issues at hand. The first half focuses mainly on Maria and her eldest son trying to get medical attention for a fairly gruesome injury. It is as if Bayona saw Michael Haneke’s recent remake of Funny Games and thought to himself, I can go further on making Ms. Watts suffer and cry for the bulk of a motion picture.
The film attempts to squeeze as much emotional grist as possible by having various parts of the family (eventually Lucas and the other two boys) get separated and re-unite ad nauseam. Case in point, the film’s most egregious offense is a ‘we will just keep missing each other’ sequence. Ostensibly the movie’s climax – involving moving hospital beds and lots of running around the where the characters keep crisscrossing without meeting in a hospital set-piece – the sequence, frankly, is offensive and way out of place with the straightforward drama that Bayona seems to be aiming for. It simply doesn’t fit.
The film has the nerve to flirt with an Owl-Creek-Bridge kind of scenario but then pulls back its punch. I’m not sure which decision would actually be worse. Geraldine Chaplin shows up briefly to pontificate about the transience and beauty of life, but by that time, nobody cares and the film goes back to being “The Passion of Naomi Watts.” The film was based on (inspired by?) the true story of a family who survived the actual 2004 Tsunami that hit the coast of Thailand, but this is all traditional Hollywood moviemaking on display here. The film often teases that it will break out of ‘formula,’ but then pulls back at the last minute. Whether that was so it could adhere to actual events or for commercial concerns remains a mystery to me.
Nevertheless, the film does indeed look gorgeous. It displays one of the best uses of high contrast, super colour saturation I have seen, period. J.A. Bayona easily scales up the wonderful craft on display in his 2007 ghost-story The Orphanage; the director knows what to do with a large budget in terms of spectacle, but then after putting all of that money up on screen, he asks that, well, you close your eyes and think of something nice.
TIFF movie review: The Impossible
There are many films to be made about the cataclysmic Indian Ocean tsunami of December, 2004, and some viewers may consider it a strike against this one that it focuses on a privileged white family (led by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) in Thailand on holiday. But that would be a mistake, because this true story is about as visceral, immersive, terrifying and heart-tugging as a movie can be. The tsunami and flood scenes are a marvel of epic filmmaking (the 3-D sound will make your teeth rattle), and the brave and vulnerable moments that occur as the family members struggle to stay alive and find one another are equally marvellous in their intimacy and humanity. Bring tissues.
Tsunami drama ‘The Impossible’ stirs waves of emotion in Toronto
“The Impossible,” from director Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”), offers a fictionalized account of one family’s real-life experience of being caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed close to 300,000 people. The film premiered Sunday night to an intensely engaged audience at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“The Impossible,” starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, is part horror film, part triumph of spirit. The happy parents of three young boys vacationing in Thailand during the Christmas holiday are torn apart when the tsunami strikes in the middle of a sunny day. The movie illustrates the family’s post-tsunami journey — the oldest son must help his very injured mother to safety, while the father is left with the two youngest boys, trying desperately to locate his wife and eldest child.
The film marks the culmination of a five-year collaboration among Bayona; screenwriter Sergio Sanchez, who also worked on “The Orphanage”; producer Belen Atienza; and the real-life Spanish family, including Maria Belon, the woman Watts portrays. Many in the audience were moved to tears when, following the screening, theater lights illuminated the five-member family.
To a standing ovation, McGregor, Watts and young actor Tom Holland, who plays oldest boy Lucas, embraced the group.
A Q&A that was scheduled for after the screening was scrapped after the standing ovation went on for what seemed to be more than five minutes. Organizers deemed everyone too raw to discuss the logistics of the film.
At an after-party hosted by Summit Entertainment, which will release “The Impossible” on Dec. 21 in the U.S., the cast, crew and family spent time reflecting on the film and their experience creating it.
Enrique Balon said he didn’t meet McGregor until after shooting on the film had begun. But when his wife showed him a photo of the actor wearing glasses with his head down, Enrique was struck by the way in which the pose closely resembled his own posture. “He got me,” said Balon. “Clearly he didn’t need me because he got there on his own.”
Maria said her main role in the production of the movie was to protect the soul of the family’s extraordinary story. Said Enrique of Maria’s work, “She did it. Definitely.”
TIFF 2012: ‘The Impossible’ is a Powerful Story of Hope, But Lacks
There are many terrifying experiences in this universe that result in tragedy. In the last decade alone we’ve watched the world experience some of the worst natural disasters in history. One kind of disaster that has come to cause an enormous amount of death and destruction are tsunamis. J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible tells the story of one family torn apart by the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in December of 2004. Visiting Thailand for a Christmas vacation, this multicultural family (based on a real Spanish family) is unsuspectingly ravaged by the destructive waves that smash ashore one morning. It is intense to watch.
Actors Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play the husband and wife of the family, with three young sons. It doesn’t take long for us to be introduced to them, get a sense of their dynamic and love (despite a bit of typical familial communication issues), just before the tsunami hits. There’s no warning. They wake up one morning, and as they’re standing around the pool with the sun shining, an eerie silence out of nowhere, then rumbling. All of a sudden a massive wave of water crashes in, destroying anything around them and plunging everything into darkness. What would that experience be like? I almost don’t want to know, ever, but Bayona shows us exactly what it would be like. Visually and, most importantly, aurally, and is it chilling.
The story then focuses on the aftermath, as the father and two sons are separated from the mother and another son. We see what it’s like for this entirely devastated community to come together, save lives, find courage and even some happiness, and believe in hope. That’s where the remaining half of the film goes, and it’s interesting to watch, but not as interesting/nerve-wracking as the lead up to the tsunami first hitting.
Where Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) succeeds with The Impossible is in the sheer terror and anxiety of the entire event. It doesn’t take long for the tsunami to hit, but when it does, it’s intense. I think deep down inside, we all secretly fear getting caught in this kind of terrifying experience. We don’t ever really want to know what it’s actually like, but we kind of do, because if it ever happens, we all want to be prepared. Our minds need to be ready for the pain, for the intensity. Right? The Impossible gives what I believe is one of the brutally honest looks at getting caught in this, using both amazing sound tricks and frightening visuals to make the experience feel real in watching. That’s where the film excels the most.
The sound design itself is incredible. Not just the tsunami, but along the way and after. Bayona uses sound as intimately and intricately as he uses the camera and actors. And since we can’t smell or actually touch the world shown, sound is the most important sense. Your mind fills in the gaps, even the painful ones, just based on a noise. Something that makes your heart beat faster, something that makes you feel a sense of relief, or maybe even hope. He takes us into this world, shows us what it was really like, but then gives us a glimmer of hope through it all. He shows us that courage and community can and occasionally do triumph.
Alas, I think that’s a bit of its downfall. It seems to be lacking something, but I just couldn’t figure out what. Its got all of the right elements – stunning cinematography, amazing sound design, fantastic performances especially from the oldest son played by Tom Holland, an endearing message of hope. But it never brought me to tears, it never made me feel in love with the film. I admire it, I respect it, and I appreciate the work within it, but it didn’t leave the emotional impact that I suppose I was expecting it to. Maybe I’d seen the trailer too much. Maybe it was the odd editing choice near the end. I’m not entirely sure, but it seemed to be missing something that could’ve elevated it to those levels. At least I can be inspired by its courageousness.
Alex’s Toronto Rating: 7 out of 10
The Impossible: Toronto Review
The Bottom Line
A tremendously realistic disaster movie has an intense emotional payoff.
The actors give edge-of-seat performances as their characters weather the 2004 East Asian catastrophe in J.A. Bayone’s taut disaster film.
As intensely concentrated as its title, The Impossible is one of the most emotionally realistic disaster movies in recent memory — and certainly one of the most frightening in its epic re-creation of the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
As the opening titles stress, it is based on a true story incredible in itself and dramatized with the utmost emotional realism by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona. The fact that the real family of five vacationers who survived the disaster were Spaniards perhaps explains why this lavish production comes from Madrid’s Apaches Entertainment. Edge-of-seat performances by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are fully supported by three child actors who give the story its extraordinary realism and visceral impact that left Toronto audiences alternately clutching their seats and dabbing at damp eyes. It will begin rolling out in Europe in October and in the U.S. at Christmastime through Summit.
This accomplished work is only Bayona’s second film, and like his thriller debut The Orphanage — a ghost story that sold internationally — it manages to blend the horrific with the real world as seen through the eyes of children, inevitably suggesting a comparison to Steven Spielberg, though without the magic. Sergio C. Sanchez’s screenplay simply has no time for fanciful moments or side-stories in its straight-arrow account of the terrible disaster. That unwavering sense of purpose, which is dramatically the reuniting of a scattered family, is the film’s great strength, and it keeps viewers tensely engrossed through the entire first hour.
Bayona takes control from his first shot of an airplane roaring past the camera on its flight over the ocean. Aboard it are the handsome young British couple Maria Bennet (Watts) and her husband Henry (McGregor) with their three young sons. Their closeness is quickly established during their first laughing, playful days in a paradise resort in Khao Lak, Thailand. They are in the pool area, Maria with their eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) and Henry playing ball with the younger sons Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin), when a low, forbidding rumble makes them turn toward the ocean.
There is no mystery about what is to come, but Bayona and his bold cinematographer Oscar Faura give it maximum shock value anyway. The wave is re-created not as a towering CGI water wall but rather as tourists in the resort see it coming: a dark brown mass knocking down row after row of thick palm trees, like soldiers falling before an unstoppable force. It sweeps over the holiday-makers before they can protect themselves, hurling cars and buildings before it. Everything disappears under its power, and for 10 harrowing minutes of sustained tension, the nightmare continues. Maria is knocked through a glass wall but emerges in the middle of the swirling debris. Crying and screaming for her son, she miraculously spots him far away, the only human being in a desert of moving water. In utter terror, they attempt to reach each other, constantly pulled apart by the rushing water full of deadly obstacles.
This grim scene is shot without a moment’s respite, leaving the audience almost as anxious and drained as the characters onscreen. Nor is there a breather when the worst seems over, because only when they emerge from the water is the seriousness of Maria’s injuries apparent. Her face is cut up, and the skin has been all but stripped from one of her legs. A doctor by training, she bravely ties a makeshift tourniquet around her thigh, but the excruciating pain never leaves Watts’ face as they forge their way to a hospital with the help of some locals.
Some time later, Henry is alive and screaming their names at the resort, reduced to broken wall and caved-in roofs. Miraculously again, the two small boys are with him. He puts them on a truck bound for safer ground and stays behind to continue his desperate search.
The story now shifts gears to the family’s anxious attempt to find one another, not knowing whether the others are still alive. Although not as dramatic as the film’s first part, the suspense is kept high through the children, each of whom is called on to perform acts of adult heroism. Young Holland in particular is astonishingly good as the terrified but courageous Lucas. Forced into the role of his mother’s protector, he guards her bedside fiercely in the chaos and horror of the crowded hospital, where she sinks in and out of consciousness with the threat of losing her leg, and possibly her life. Touchingly, he helps people search for their loved ones, allowing the theme of empathy for other human beings emerges far more naturally than in most Hollywood scripts.
Watts packs a huge charge of emotion as the battered, ever-weakening Maria whose tears of pain and fear never appear fake or idealized. McGregor, cut and streaked with excessive blood he seems too distraught to wash away, keeps the tension razor-sharp as he pursues his family in a vast, shattered landscape.
High-quality tech work blends seamlessly to create some unforgettable visual imagery greatly enhanced for the powerful use of sounds. Fernando Velazquez’s score is not afraid to step in operatically to push the emotions even farther but at times feels unnecessarily manipulative when everything onscreen is already at a fever pitch.
TIFF Review: Overwrought ‘The Impossible’ Drowns In A Sea Of Melodrama
If “The Impossible” moves viewers to do anything, it may be to upgrade their life insurance policy to cover injuries due to tsunami. Following a wealthy family who encounter undeniable hardship, they are also blessed with the kind of luck and good fortune that only happens in the movies (or to people who can afford it). Except as director Juan Antonio Bayona takes great pains tell us, this is Based On A True Story (with the words “true story” then left to linger on their own before the movie begins). And while that may (almost) forgive some of the more happenstance developments in the film, it doesn’t excuse the overbearing emotion and narrow focus of this overwrought picture.
We are introduced to the Bennetts as they land in Thailand and settle into a fancypants and very expensive resort hotel for Christmas. They didn’t get the third floor room with a sea view they reserved (bummer) but instead get upgraded to a much nicer beachside villa (membership has its privileges we guess). We get a few little character details — father Henry (Ewan McGregor) is a worrier who might be losing his job, while his eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) is an aloof pre-teen with no time for his little brothers — but all that is forgotten once disaster strikes.
And indeed, the tsunami sequence is both technically accomplished and truly terrifying to watch. Bayona has definitely done his research, with the biggest danger not just the water itself, but power of the tide and the debris that flies along with it, making survival not just about making sure you’re still able to breathe, but that you’re not fatally struck by any number of objects being carried in the surge. The Bennetts are essentially split, with Henry and the two smallest children Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) off in one direction, while Lucas his mother Maria (Naomi Watts) spun off in another.
If there is an Oscar for moaning in pain, Watts will certainly be a lock. A good portion of the first 40 minutes of the film are dedicated to Maria either screaming for her son, or being in total agony as she nurses a leg that has been severely punctured by a tree branch. As she hobbles along, Lucas takes on the leadership role of sorts, and the duo take a stray Swedish child, Daniel (John Sundberg), with them as well. Taking refuge in a tree, they are eventually spotted by some locals who get the injured and increasingly weak Maria onto a truck, and bring everyone to a nearby hospital that is teeming with various victims of the tsunami. Lucas understably stays doggedly by Maria’s side, but is encouraged by his mother to look after others who need assistance as well, and he begins to spend his time helping people who are looking for their loved ones in the hospital.
The second half of “The Impossible” switches focus to Henry, who has managed to find Simon and Thomas, and remains in the vicinity of the resort. But after days of searching for Maria and Lucas, he puts Simon and Thomas on a truck to safety, while he stays behind to search out his wife and son. He teams up with another man searching for his family (Dominic Power) and together they begin to hit every shelter and hospital they can, in the hopes of locating their children and spouses.
It’s hard to describe just how manipulative and over-the-top Bayona’s picture tends to be, but it’s safe to say there isn’t an emotional beat that the director doesn’t sledgehammer just once. At least half a dozen times, one member or another of the Bennett famliy vulnerably says “I’m scared” or “I’m scared too.” Moments of uplift or heartbreak are not just punctuated by Fernando Velázquez’s bland score, but drowned in it, while the screenplay trades in the kind of heart-tugging sentiment that this real life tragedy doesn’t deserve. From the opening moments of film which features a black screen and the sound of and omnious roar that fills the speaker, to the very last frames that swell with strings as the Bennetts look down on the destruction they’ve survived, Bayona doesn’t seem to trust the audience to understand the magnitude of the tsunami on their own.
And while some have questioned turning the Spanish family of the true story into Brits in the film, we understand that the particulars of film financing probably makes it easier to get money for a movie if it stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. But it’s not comprehensible that the filmmakers have mostly left brown faces in the background, except for one nurse who happens to get a few significant lines. Even the folks Maria and Henry bump into along the way tend to mostly be white. For a tragedy that hit the residents of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand hardest, it’s a bit baffling that any screen time isn’t given to displaying how citizens who don’t have insurance plans or comfortable homes in foreign countries to fall back on are left to survive. Perhaps that’s a different movie entirely, but to not even acknowledge it is a serious oversight that hampers the picture.
There is another version of “The Impossible,” a much more subtle one, that can tell the story of the Bennetts while also expanding the scope to chronicle the wide ranging and long lasting devastation the tsunami left in its wake. This isn’t it, obviously. But unfortunately, even viewed as a straightforward tale of survival, “The Impossible” strikes an insincere tone, one that doesn’t let the obviously powerful moments stand on their own, but instead follows the beautiful Hollywood stars to safety, while the real story is left on the ground. [D+]
The most harrowing disaster movie in many a moon, “The Impossible” marries a tremendous feat of physical filmmaking to an emotional true story of family survival. Cannily fusing spectacle and uplift in a distinctly Spielbergian manner, talented Spanish helmer J. A. Bayona captures the devastation wrought by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami with a raw, sickening intensity, demonstrating a surefooted but rather less elemental touch in the calculated-to-resonate aftermath. Wrenchingly acted, deftly manipulated and terrifyingly well made, this not-for-the-squeamish Summit release stands to be a significant year-end draw.
The title refers to the extraordinary circumstances by which the Belon family, vacationing in Thailand in December 2004, managed to weather the deadliest catastrophe in the country’s history. Sergio G. Sanchez’s screenplay (with a story credited to surviving wife and mother Maria Belon) dramatizes the events with a lean, pared-down simplicity. Not a frame is wasted, as British-born businessman Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) and his doctor wife, Maria (Naomi Watts), arrive at a Thai beach resort with their three boys on Christmas Eve, arguing, laughing and playing like any loving family right when disaster strikes.
In a staggeringly vivid 10-minute reconstruction, 98-foot-high tidal waves sweep through Thailand’s coastal towns, flinging people, cars and debris around like dolls. Almost immediately, the enormous walls of water separate Maria and oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) from Henry and the two younger boys, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast).
Longer and more concentrated in impact than the tsunami prologue of Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” this gale-force sequence was achieved using Thailand-based sets, a Spain-based liquid tank, several thousand gallons of water, and seamlessly integrated f/x. While the scenes of sweeping, large-scale destruction are stunning to behold, the most nightmarish sights and sounds come via Maria’s perspective as she’s repeatedly dragged beneath the surface; few films have so palpably evoked the sensation of drowning, or of being pounded relentlessly by muddy waves and debris.
Steadying themselves by clinging to a felled tree, Lucas and a badly injured Maria eventually find their way to dry land. Detailing every groan, scrape and shudder with almost unbearable deliberation, the film documents their agonizingly slow journey to a crowded hospital; meanwhile, Henry searches for them amid the wreckage of the resort, unsure of how best to take care of Thomas and Simon in the meantime.
Collaborating again after their impressive 2007 debut feature, “The Orphanage,” Bayona and Sanchez get many things right here, starting with their decision to eschew a more panoramic view of the disaster to follow one family’s journey from start to finish. The stripped-down approach suits an intimate story of individuals pushed to their limits — to a place where survival and reunion become their sole priorities. TV news footage is kept to a refreshing minimum; any context about the scope of the tragedy is gleaned primarily from the Bennetts’ sympathetic conversations with their fellow refugees. Lessons about the nobility of sacrifice and the satisfaction of helping others in times of crisis emerge stirringly and organically from the characters’ experiences, along with spontaneous moments of life-affirming humor.
Watts has few equals at conveying physical and emotional extremis, something she again demonstrates in a mostly bedridden role, and McGregor, in one of his better recent performances, manages to turn a simple phone call home into a small aria of heartbreak. Holland, in his live-action bigscreen debut, is wonderful as a kind, somewhat short-tempered kid who still has plenty to learn, setting the tone for similarly heartrending turns by young Joslin and Pendergast.
In many respects, particularly the way it gives children an enormous role to play on a canvas of epic calamity, this is prototypical Spielberg fare, and as such it’s not immune to a certain emotional manipulation. As the virtually unrelieved tension and anxiety of the first half give way to less grueling scenes of will-they-find-each-other suspense, signaled by increasingly operatic surges in Fernando Velazquez’s score, “The Impossible” contrives a conclusion that, however true to life it may be, can’t help but feel somewhat artificially imposed in relation to what has preceded it.
TIFF 2012: The Impossible Is Emotional Manipulation Done Almost Perfectly Right
Remember when Clint Eastwood’s godawful Hereafter came out in 2010, and everyone said “Well, at least the tsunami sequence is good?” Well, now we can finally forget about that movie entirely thanks to The Impossible, in which Juan Antonio Bayona recreates the 2004 South Pacific tsunami with unforgettable, almost unbearable intensity. The true story that gives the film its narrative is an impressive tale of survival told with maximum schmaltz, and by focusing on a wealthy British family who suffered the tsunami because they were in Thailand on vacation, The Impossible comes dangerously close to minimizing the experience of millions of South Pacific islanders who lost everything in the disaster. But Bayona has picked a story with every emotional note to play, and he plucks those strings perfectly– whether it’s the terror of the tsunami or the emotion of family bonds, this film will get you whether you like it or not.
Though both Bayona and the real family that inspired the story are Spanish, the demands of financing a movie this large have The Impossible following the British Bennett family– Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan MacGregor), and their three adorable boys (Tom Holland, Oaklee Pendergastst and Samuel Joslin). Bayona, who made the chilling horror thriller The Orphanage, cannily sets up the dread of the tsunami with seemingly innocuous shots of children swimming or the ocean at night, pumping up the sound of the waves crashing to poke at the raw nerves of the audience that’s waiting for the worst to strike.
When the water comes, we see Maria and the eldest Lucas (Holland) are carried away in the fast-moving water, struck by debris and grappling for anything to grab hold of, including each other. Bayona pumps up the expert sound design and spins his actors through such chaos it’s hard to know quite how they did it. The tsunami sequence is harrowing, but it’s not just about pummeling the audience– Bayona sets up real tension and spatial logic within the rapidly moving water, which is a pretty incredible feat given that every imaginable landmark is moving in the flood. He’s not exploiting the disaster for entertainment, but he’s not bludgeoning you either– it’s a stunning and unforgettable sequence, and something that the rest of the movie, as you might expect, can’t really match.
The tsunami scene is so ruthless and efficient that it’s a little surprising when Bayona leans so hard on the emotions later on, with strings coming in to highlight every moment of connection between the surviving strangers, and Fernando Velazquez’s score going into overdrive every time a member of the Bennett family has a moment of triumph. Watts and McGregor, along with the very talented young Holland, sell the big feelings well, but their story of survival feels pretty familiar, especially compared to the stunning tsunami sequence that comes before. And though we see other survivors looking for their families or coping with loss, the film’s narrow focus on the Bennetts– and, for that matter, almost exclusively tourists– starts to lose track of the unbelievable scope of the real-life tragedy.
There was a ton of sniffling and sobbing around me at yesterday’s press screening, but also more than a few walkouts, people either too overwhelmed by the film’s visceral violence or offended by the manipulative emotions. Both are fair reactions, but neither are reasons not to see The Impossible, which tells the story of an unavoidable natural disaster but still manages to be necessary viewing. Bayona has an incredible power over the audience in The Impossible, and while he might abuse it at moments, he earns it too.
The Impossible – review
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor shine in this affecting and powerful true story of a family caught up in the Asian tsunami
4 out of 5 stars
Spanish cinema has had a long love affair with genre film-making. Perhaps because of Franco’s repressive regime, the country’s leading directors have frequently used fantasy, the supernatural and horror to explore loss, regret and, in the case of Juan Antonio Bayona’s debut film The Orphanage, family secrets. For his follow-up, Bayona returns to the family unit, but this time in a movie that comes with no dressing. The Impossible simply is what it is, neither metaphorical nor allegorical, and its power comes from its physical scale and human emotion.
It begins with a plane journey; an everyday family – Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three children – are off to spend Christmas in Thailand, where their hotel suite has been upgraded to a villa on the coastline. They settle in, exchange gifts, and head down to the pool, like dozens of other holiday-makers in the area. The scene is perfect, idyllic, until a distant rumble suddenly and scarily becomes a roar. There is no time to move as the tsunami hits; Maria and her eldest are swept one way, Henry and the youngest another.
As far as plot goes, this is pretty much it: who will survive, and what will become of them? But instead of playing for tension, Bayona goes for character and atmosphere. In scenes reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, we follow family members through the carnage, looking for each other and hoping against all likely hope for some sort of miracle. As Maria, Watts is both brave and vulnerable, and her scenes with the young Lucas (the excellent Tom Holland) are among the film’s best, with adult and child now unexpected equals, the mother humbled, the son rising to the challenge. McGregor, meanwhile, gives one of his best performances as the sad and desperate Henry, trying to play the hero, the provider, while knowing his cause is almost certainly lost.
If it weren’t based on a true story, the ending would seem preposterous, but part of the appeal of this affecting and powerful drama is that it puts the viewer right in the moment at every stage, using authentic locations and tsunami survivors to hammer home the reality of this tragedy. Like many other films in Toronto this year, it also puts its title credit at the end. At first it seems a little pretentious, but in fact this is quite fitting: in many ways, Bayona’s film begins where it leaves off. How will these people put this trauma behind them, and how can anything ever be normal again? This is the film’s one tilt to genre, as Bayona invites us to use our imagination.
Almost ‘Impossible’ not to praise it
The 37th edition opening weekend at the always-buzzing international film festival here might have saved the best for last with the world premiere of “The Impossible” this evening.
With director Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”) and stars Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and young Tom Holland on hand, the true story of one family’s collective attempts to survive the treacherous Thailand tsunami of 2004 received a 10-minute standing ovation at its conclusion.
In addition to the sellout crowd at the spacious Princess of Wales Theater, the emotionally charged movie also apparently moved the real folks involved. All five members of the Belon family, including parents Enrique and Maria (played by McGregor and Watts) and their three now-grown-up sons, shared hugs, high-fives and even a few tears with Bayona and company while the audience roared its approval.
The Summit film opens Dec. 21 in New York and L.A. for awards consideration, and expect it to get plenty. Some of the scary sounds alone might be worth the price of admission.
The Impossible review
Acclaimed Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona makes his English-language debut with The Impossible, by far one of the most harrowing films you will ever see. Based on the true story of a family caught in the events of the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck the coast of Thailand (trailer here), Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor give powerful performances as the mother and father of three young sons, the eldest of which, Tom Holland, making one of the finest feature debuts in years (excluding his voice work on Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty).
The film opens with Maria (Watts) and Henry (McGregor) aboard a plane heading to Thailand on Christmas Eve with their three children (Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast) for their holiday vacation. They arrive at their villa and find themselves in paradise – sunshine, a swimming pool a stone’s throw from their doorstep, and a handful of fellow holidaymakers enjoying the fine weather for the festive season.
Early Christmas morning, we see through Henry’s hand-held camcorder the children being woken, followed by the ripping open of presents, enjoying all that Santa has bestowed upon them. The mention of Santa here early on in the film really hits home just how young the children are, and furthers the terror we know is just one day from unfolding. It was on Boxing Day in real life that the earthquake hit in the Indian Ocean back in 2004, causing one of the worst tsunamis in recorded history to hit the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and a handful of other countries.
In The Impossible, the parents and their boys are playing by the pool when disaster strikes; a moment of tranquillity followed by utter devastation, instantly separating the family. We first follow Maria as she is tossed around like a rag doll in the muddied water, crashing into nearby fallen branches, struggling to break the surface. After moments of isolation, she is mercifully reunited with the eldest of her sons, Lucas (Holland), who is scratched and bloodied, but in a slightly better state than his mother.
Thinking Henry and the other two boys to be dead, they desperately try to make their way to safety, rescued by the local people Maria’s condition is deteriorating and results in her being dragged in unceasing pain towards the hospital, peopled by thousands of equally devastated victims. By a similar grace, Henry is not only alive, but finds himself reunited with his youngest two boys, and having shepherded them to safety, he is determined to go back in search of Maria and Lucas, unable to leave them behind without knowing their fate.
These merciful graces need no suspension of disbelief as we watch events unfold, for we know the film is based on a true story. Whether you know the final outcome of the family in real life or not, the film is an incredibly moving, powerful portrait of one family’s struggle to stay alive in the devastating moments of the tsunami and the aftermath that unfolds.
Bayona’s direction is utterly unflinching, getting us as close to feeling Maria’s pain as is possible through the medium. The screen will always act as a barrier to a certain extent, but with such a talented director as this, it is almost as though we were there experiencing the reality and the horrors ourselves.
Speaking at the Q&A following the screening, Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez talked about the months of preparation and research they undertook in order to write and shoot the film, talking with survivors and discovering so many of their stories. They said that in the filming of one highly emotive scene, some of these survivors sat down with McGregor and told him their stories moments before shooting, and this intense emotion translates onto the screen when Henry breaks down amongst fellow victims in an incredibly powerful, heart-breaking display of emotion. McGregor gives an Oscar-worthy performance here that will move you to tears.
The Impossible is one of those rare films that comes along once in a blue moon. A Spanish production made outside of the studio system, it is a big-budgeted dramatic thriller-cum-disaster epic that is flawless in its delivery, from script through to production design through to the remarkable performances of all its cast. It is one of the most powerful, moving, and harrowing films I have ever seen, and I have every reason to believe that the same will go for you. This is one film that will have everyone talking in the months to come, and it is very much an absolute must-see as soon as it arrives in a theatre near you.
Review: The Impossible (TIFF 2012)
PLOT: The incredible true story of a vacationing family (led by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) who were caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.
REVIEW: J.A Bayona’s THE IMPOSSIBLE is a film that many at TIFF likely walked into with a lot of baggage. The 2004 Tsunami is still a fresh wound in many people’s minds, with well over a quarter of a million people having died, along with the unimaginable amount of displaced and broken families, who are likely still reeling from the disaster.
Bayona’s film is done tastefully, so don’t go in expecting a cheesy disaster movie or anything like that. THE IMPOSSIBLE is a sobering, if ultimately hopefully and life-affirming account of a real family’s struggle to reunite, although the choice to give this a western perspective with a white, upper-middle class family at it’s heart will likely put off some (this is Hollywood folks).
The disaster hits only ten minutes or so into the film, with only a minimum of exposition showing us that expatriate father Henry (Ewan McGregor) is being urged by his MD-turned housewife Marie (Naomi Watts) to take the family back to the UK after having lived abroad for years. Their bickering is ditched once the disaster hits. From here, the family is split, with half of the movie centring on Watts and her oldest son Lucas (young Tom Holland- who’s incredible) trying to find help despite Watts’ horrific wounds. The other half focuses mainly on Henry, who managed to save the two younger kids, and is now desperately searching the ruins for the rest of his displaced family.
The event itself is depicted in such a harrowing, uncompromising way that it makes the one shown in Clint Eastwood’s HEREAFTER looks comparatively low-tech. But- the disaster is not really what this is about, but rather the fight to survive, and Bayona puts his actors through the ringer. Watts brilliantly conveys a head-strong mom who’s forced to, in effect, become the child when her wounds force Lucas to become her caretaker after they escape the Tsunami. Her physical decline is absolutely horrific, and while this is probably going out with a PG-13 rating, it’s not for the squeamish.
McGregor is also extremely affecting as the desperate Henry, and his breakdown while on the phone to his father-in-law later in the film screams “Oscar clip” (although this is strictly a supporting role, not a lead). However, it’s the young Holland who’s probably going to walk away with most of the kudos, with his evolution from a spoiled brat, into a compassionate survivor who tries to help those in need the best he can- being beautifully depicted. Geraldine Chaplin also has a nice little part as an older woman who crucially comes forward to comfort to two younger kids when they are left to fend for themselves.
In the end, THE IMPOSSIBLE is all about the need for hope against impossible odds. While HBO’s TSUNAMI: THE AFTERMATH probably gave a more balanced and comprehensive look at the disaster, THE IMPOSSIBLE is itself a pretty fine piece of work, and one that will likely find a healthy audience when it hits theatres at the end of the year. Whether or not that audience will include Academy members is another question, although nominations for the VFX seem a no-brainer.
7 out of 10
TIFF PARTY: Naomi Watts is a dancing queen at the CAA bash
Watching Naomi Watts shake her groove thang to the sultry sounds of George Michael at the CAA party at Cinema in Liberty Village on Sunday night is one of our top TIFF moments this year. The stunning star was in high heels and a formal gown, but that didn’t stop her from owning the dance floor—she even shimmied to Naughty by Nature on her way out.
And a tiny bit from Entertainment Weekly that was written before the film festival:
Ben Affleck, Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and more: EW’s Toronto Film Festival Must List
This Thursday marks the beginning of the Toronto International Film Festival, widely considered (along with the just-completed Telluride and currently running Venice fests) the kickoff to the Oscar race. Keep an eye out for the following filmmakers and actors whose movies are playing there. I expect all of them to make a splash at Toronto—and throughout the entire awards season.
Ben Affleck, director, Argo. Directing his third feature—and his first outside his hometown of Boston—Affleck juggles a mammoth cast (including Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin) and brings maximum tension to a true story of international political intrigue. Bonus points for deftly handling the film’s leading role as well.
Naomi Watts, actress, and Ewan McGregor, supporting actor, The Impossible. Playing a vacationing couple whose family (pictured above) is torn apart by the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, Watts and McGregor don’t share many scenes. But they build a strong connection that permeates the screen even when they’re separated by the aftermath of a shocking natural disaster.
Stephen Chbosky, screenwriter, The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Adapting his own hit young-adult book, the novelist-turned-filmmaker has made a bittersweet high school drama (featuring Emma Watson and Paul Rudd) that insightfully explores issues of community and sexuality. It could very well end up becoming this generation’s The Breakfast Club.
John Hawkes, actor, and Helen Hunt, supporting actress, The Sessions. As a 38-year-old polio survivor and the professional sex surrogate who provides his sensual awakening, Hawkes (an Oscar nominee for 2010’s Winter’s Bone) and Hunt (who won Best Actress for 1997’s As Good as It Gets) turn in career-best performances that are affecting and gutsy.