Film review: The Impossible, Naomi Watts makes waves, but it's not a perfect storm

3.00

(12A)

We can't get enough of disaster movies. Whatever the scale of horror and devastation they depict, we know that somebody will survive. (United 93, about the hijacked plane that fought back on 9/11, is the only recent exception). The suspense concerns which ones will survive. Who will have the nerve, or the nous, or the sheer good fortune, to escape catastrophe? And what proportion of survivors is required to send home an audience with a sense of catharsis, if not a happy ending – 10 per cent? Five? A handful?

That last question may occur to you during The Impossible, which vividly re-creates the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December, 2004. But it may not actively trouble you until later, when you've got past the mind-numbing desolation that the disaster leaves in its wake. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) has taken on enormous challenges with this movie, and on a technical basis at least he carries all before him. For the manipulation of digital imagery it should give Life of Pi a run for its money come awards season, and the sound design also plays a significant role in its atmospheric build-up. Just listening to the 10 seconds of wind rush immediately before the tsunami breaks is enough to make you hide under your seat.

The dramatic focus of the movie is an English couple, Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor), living in Japan. They've just arrived at a Thai beach resort for Christmas with their three young sons, though all is not well. He's worried about losing his job, and she's wondering if she should go back to work as a doctor. Such anxieties look destined to be put into perspective.

There's a strange rustling in the air, and a breeze picks up. We know that this is the lull before the storm, but the holidaymakers don't, and the speed at which calamity bursts in on them is genuinely shocking. One minute they're on dry land, the next they're gargling through a watery chaos. I don't know how the effects team managed it, but hell, does it look – and sound – like the real thing. Beach houses collapse like matchsticks as the flood thunders forward, and for a moment we're writhing under the turbid swell with Watts, narrowly dodging the debris that would knock her lights out forever. She manages to get to the surface, where her eldest boy Lucas (Tom Holland, a fine newcomer) is also trying to stay afloat.

Somehow the pair of them fight their way out of the death zone. They clamber up a tree, where it might be safe, though the mother is in agony from a leg wound. This is the beginning of a personal Calvary, and Watts gives it her all – even when she seems to be unconscious. Again, the make-up is a technical triumph. When they reach a hospital, itself overwhelmed with the injured and dying, Watts looks so painfully depleted you can scarcely believe she's not at death's door. Her skin colour goes from hangover-grey to cadaverous blue. "Am I dead?" she asks at one point, not unreasonably. Sent on a mission to help around the stricken wards, 11-year-old Lucas does his best in dreadful circumstances. On returning to his mum he finds her bed empty, and we are plunged into another crisis. Imagine every Spielberg mother-and-son separation rolled into one, and you're getting there. It's impossible not to be moved.

An hour or so has gone by now, and you wonder what's become of Ewan McGregor. But here he is, searching through the wreckage for his wife and Lucas. He's got his two youngest with him, and now we see where the story's going. (The screenplay is based, by the way, on what happened to a Spanish family of five – presumably it was box-office considerations that changed them to English-speakers).

McGregor has to join the bedraggled masses of other survivors trying to reach their loved ones, gesturing at a broader picture of loss. Unfortunately, it has the effect of making this story look rather tactless. Nearly a quarter of a million people died in the Asian tsunami, but for the purposes of this movie they form merely an amorphous backdrop to one family's trauma. It is not much consolation to know that many of the film's extras were local people who lost family members in the disaster. Weren't their stories just as valid?

The narrowness of focus looks increasingly awkward as the film goes on. Dispersed though they are, this family has survived the flood; now they must somehow find their way back to one another. But do we really care, after all we've been shown? The last third of the movie indulges a kind of charade of near-misses in the overburdened hospital, as Watts thinks she glimpses her husband, and Lucas almost crosses paths with his dad. A tragedy of mass destruction is reduced to fit an old movie trope.

This isn't to deny the family's bravery and resourcefulness in the face of life-threatening terrors, or to berate the film-makers for picking one story from many thousands of others. You should see it anyway for Watts's amazing performance, and for the portrayal of the tsunami's awesome energy and destructiveness. But The Impossible seems complacent, all the same, and even a bit heartless in its salute to one family of white Western tourists. It's much easier to never say die when your privileged status has secured access to medical help and enormous slices of luck.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own