Movie review: 'Impossible' tells harrowing story beautifully

Review • True tale of family's survival during 2004 tsunami.
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"The Impossible" is a brilliantly visualized, touchingly acted and hauntingly moving survival drama set in the lethal turmoil of the 2004 tsunami that killed thousands of people across the southern Pacific.

It's a really fine movie, but one so tough to sit through that many viewers are likely to give it a pass.

The movie tells the true story of a family vacationing at a Thai resort one Christmas. Parents Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) lounge by the pool while their sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) play in the pool.

Then disaster strikes. A wall of water washes over the resort, turning buildings to kindling and washing debris and bodies all over. The destruction is unimaginable, and director J.A. Bayona ("The Orphanage") and his special-effects crew do an astonishing job of imagining it for us in every excruciating detail. For example, it turns out one of the dangers of being hit by a tsunami isn't the water itself (which is still pretty bad), but getting hit or gouged by the jagged flotsam and jetsam carried by that water.

The script — by Sergio G. Sanchez, with story help by Maria Belon — runs on parallel tracks, as the family is separated, with some members not knowing whether others have survived. First we follow Maria with Lucas, the oldest son, who must take on responsibility when Maria's injuries become more than she can bear. Then we reunite with Henry and the other two boys, still at the resort, desperate to find Maria and Lucas.

There are moments that will make a moviegoer wince, as when Bayona shows us the horrific gash in Maria's right thigh. But as heart-wrenching as the physical travails of this family are, the emotional ones are even more harrowing — such as one scene in which Henry, finally given access to a cell phone, makes a desperate call to his father-in-law to tell him the bad news.

The power of Bayona's images — along with the strong performances by Watts, McGregor and especially young Holland — bring the reality of the 2006 tsunami, the uncountable damage and the many lives lost, back to our consciousness with a ferocity only movies can provide.

That power is also a bit of a cheat, as we discover at the movie's end. A picture of the real-life family whose story we've just experienced — who aren't English (as the actors' accents would make us think) but Spanish — pulls us away from the family's story for a moment to reflect on the Hollywood mindset that would insist on English-speaking Anglos and not Spaniards (even bankable stars like Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem) to fill these roles.

But that's a minor irritation, felt only after the fact. The raw emotions of "The Impossible" are experienced in the moment, as we live the harrowing disaster along with this family.

Twitter: @moviecricket —


'The Impossible'

A beautiful, harrowing drama of one family's ordeal in the 2004 tsunami.

Where • Area theaters.

When • Opens Friday, Jan. 4.

Rating • PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity.

Running time • 114 minutes.