The Impossible

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(Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012)

Having gathered significant acclaim for his genuinely creepy horror The Orphanage (El orfanato) (2007), director Juan Antonio Bayona transcends his native tongue, and the expectations of an equally supernatural follow-up, by depicting the whitewashed true story of a family torn apart by the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated Thailand in 2004. Assembling a handful of fine actors – with the shatteringly poignant one-two punch of Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor providing ample representation of his talent for calibrating fine performances – Bayona here does that most ostensibly unachievable of things: creating a lifelike portrait of such an horrific act of god that is as tasteful as it is crushing.

Framed, as it is, around the story of this family of five (in reality the Belón’s, here the Bennett’s), the success of The Impossible doesn’t solely emanate from such a bold tale of survival, but from the way Bayona takes such an acute focus on the large-scale events. In other, less intimate hands, the film could have been a straightforward story of monumental incident followed by prolonged reunion, and in some ways this is, yet there is such a sweeping sense of scope that captures the various physical and mortal ruptures the tsunami dealt. From Eugenio Caballero’s impressively expansive production design to Oscar Faura’s Terrence Malick-esque photography, Bayona captures the gaping presence of nature sitting idly by as the human defoliation sets in, as much a victim of the tragedy as an agent of it. This can be seen in a foreboding early shot from the point of view of the ocean, the camera swaying with the gradually swelling waves as they wait to strike.

Similarly effective is the blistering sound design, drastically outweighing the tinny dialogue and Fernando Velázquez’s manipulative original score, which itself is welded to the film’s flawed and overstated occasional emotional nosedives. Stripped of the sumptuous visuals, the film makes an admirable guess at the aural and mental horrors of being caught in the throes of crisis, the sound cracking and tremoring while the characters are submerged in a relentless undertow, best seen when Watts’s character, on the brink of death, battles for life. The slow motion shot of her emerging from the flowing tides, beaten and bloodied, is a masterful distillation of terrifying unease in the face of dwindling hope, augmented by a chilling reverberation on the soundtrack reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann.

Quiet moments of reflection are given ample room amongst the drudgery, including a magical scene with one of the younger family members and a cameo from Geraldine Chaplin. Realism gives way to hints of spirituality and the unknowable rationalisation behind this non-fictional story, as her character, Old Woman, ponders whilst looking up at the myriad corpses of stars whose lives still burn in space: “It’s a beautiful mystery, isn’t it?”.

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