Occasionally, a film is made so well, it transports you into the story and makes you a living, breathing part of it. And when these films depict realistic or real-life events, the effect is both exhilarating and horrifying. On the one hand, you are happy to be in the hands of filmmakers who are at the top of their game and extremely passionate about the story. On the other hand, the place they transport you to might not be so great.
This is what film is supposed to do, transport you to a time and place, and I love it when this happens. But it doesn’t happen often. In the last few months, it has happened twice.
When I first heard about “The Impossible”, the new film from JA Bayona (“The Orphanage”), my first reaction was “I hope this film is better than “Hereafter”.” Clint Eastwood’s film also depicts a tsunami.
Maria and Henry (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) take their three children to a new resort in Thailand for Christmas. They have a great time enjoying the sun, sand and warmth. A few days later, Maria is at the pool and hears a loud noise. Everyone turns and watches a wall of water advance toward them. Henry heads for their two youngest sons. Maria is closer to Lucas (Tom Holland), their oldest son, when the water hits. The rest of the film depicts how each member of the family attempts to survive and whether they can find each other again.
JA Bayona heard the story of a Spanish family who lived through the tsunami, experienced some difficult, life-altering situations and survived. He was so moved by their story, he decided to make it into a film. I’m not sure why, but in the film they are a British family.
As soon as the film begins, some inventive sound design signals to you Bayona is going to take no prisoners and do his best to immerse us in the experience of this story. He introduces us to Maria and Henry and their children, giving us time to get to know them and learn about how they interact with one another. They seem like a good, real family, complete with some issues.
Then, the tsunami hits with no warning. Each of the parents makes a mad attempt to grab their children before the water and debris engulf everything and everyone around them.
Let’s pause a moment. The depiction of the tsunami is a good illustration of the differences between Eastwood’s “Hereafter” and “The Impossible”. In Eastwood’s version, we watch the wave of water hit the resort from above, as though in a helicopter. Yet, the female character is on the ground, about to be engulfed. In Bayona’s version, we are just behind Maria, watching the immense wall of water approach her. In Eastwood’s film, the scene is designed to show off the special effects and the work of the techs and because we are not with the character, we don’t experience it with her. In Bayona’s film, we are right there with Maria when the water hits, and we watch, in horror, as she gets tossed around in the water and get hit by tree trunks, bicycles and pool chairs. Bayona is much more successful because he puts us in the experience with his lead actress.
As soon as the tsunami hits, the film breaks into two different stories. We spend a significant amount of time with Maria and Lucas as they try to survive and find some help. A while later, we pick up with Henry and his two younger sons, as they try to deal with the aftermath of the disaster and Henry tries to locate the rest of his family. This is an interesting narrative device because it gives us a lot of time with each part of the family, allowing us to really experience what they are going through. But it also gives the film a slightly episodic structure. This isn’t a bad thing; it just isn’t something you usually want to experience in a film. But because we spend so much time with each part of the family, each part of the story becomes even more emotional.
The journey of this family is extremely painful and they go through a lot and because Bayona does everything he possibly can to put us in their shoes (or lack thereof), we feel like we are going through the journey with them.
Naomi Watts is very good as Maria. From the moment the tsunami hits, you know that her every moment and breath will be spent trying to save Lucas and trying to find Henry and her two younger sons. Later, an injury will sideline her and lead to some iffy moments leading you to wonder if she will make it out alive.
Ewan McGregor plays Henry, the husband and father. He grabs his two younger sons and manages to get them out of harm’s way. But then he has to find Maria and Lucas. Eventually, he decides to leave his two younger sons with another stunned vacationer at a relief camp, so he can travel more quickly and try to find the rest of his family. As soon as he does this, you feel like shouting at the screen “Don’t do that. That’s a bad idea”. And your feelings will prove correct, but not for the reasons you might initially suspect.
And because we are so invested in their lives, the inevitable reunion is a real tear jerker. Get your hankies out. Every trial and tribulation they experience comes to the surface when they reunite. And you will feel it as well.
The other film that made me feel emotionally wrecked after watching it is Michael Haneke’s “Amour”.
And now that I have seen this film, I will be very happy to never see it again. Instead, I eagerly look forward to the next film from JA Bayona.