Ewan McGregor Week – Day 4: ‘The Impossible’ (2012)

Day 4 of our week-long look at great films from Ewan McGregor brings us to the story of a young couple and their children vacationing in Thailand who are caught in the devastation of a massive tsunami and the horrific aftermath. It’s 2012’s The Impossible.

To start, the movie is based on the real experiences of a family during the real-life tsunami of December 26, 2004 that occurred in the Indian Ocean, which remains one of the most deadly natural disasters in history. The film is an unflinching look at the realities of that catastrophe, putting us directly in the wave’s path and the monumental destruction that follows.

The Impossible
Naomi Watts, Tom Holland (The Impossible, 2012)

It begins on a quiet beach resort in Thailand where Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) are spending the day after Christmas with their three young sons, Lucas, Simon and Thomas (Tom Holland, Oaklee Pendergast and Samuel Joslin). From the ocean arrives a wall of water so high it crushes over the tops of the villas and in seconds consumes the family and everyone around them, demolishing everything in a great swath of unstoppable fury. They are all separated, each unsure the others are alive though Maria manages to find Lucas while Henry, the others but not each other. Maria, a doctor, is seriously injured and fades in and out of consciousness while her eldest son assumes the mantle of manhood in the chaos of the aftermath as thousands float dead in the water and even more scurry and cling to life elsewhere. What follows is the epic journey of both Maria and Henry to find each other and not only be witness to but ultimately try and survive an apocalypse on an unimaginable scale.

Directed by J.A. Bayona, this is more than just a disaster film, and those coming in hopes of a few hours of mindless trope-ish action will be disappointed. This isn’t about visual effects and endless shots of massive citywide rampaging carnage with buildings tumbling and things exploding. In fact, that part is over right in the beginning. While there is a remarkably terrifying sequence involving the waves themselves, they are not of the typical disaster film type either, where we watch in detached awe at the amazing CGI. This is something different. It feels astonishingly authentic, and more frightening than most horror films. Furthermore, there can be no avoiding the enormous sense of dread in knowing that it was real, it truly happened, verified by the numerous videos on YouTube and elsewhere of people filming as it happened. 

The Impossible
Naomi Watts, Tom Holland (The Impossible, 2012)

Watts, who was nominated for an Academy Award is shockingly good at playing a mother determined to see she and her son through. It’s difficult to describe the effort she puts into creating this character and the intense, emotionally gripping turn she gives in her performance. It’s harrowing. Good also is Holland (recently cast as Spider-Man, here in his film debut) in a commanding performance, playing protector to his mother. He earns all the praise he received. McGregor is equally effective and offers a deeply affecting and heartbreaking take on a father close to the edge of defeat. As Henry, his portrayal is wonderfully nuanced, never overly-dramatic but still very affecting. Shot in a lot of close-ups, there is a desperation in his eyes that is haunting as he tries to continually encourage his young sons that all will be okay while he contends with a pressing weight of a truth he can’t accept.

Bayona, using extras who are real survivors of the actual tsunami, worked closely with the family that the story is based on (who were on set) and created one of the most authentic and disturbing images of a tsunami to date, surpassing Clint Eastwood‘s still spectacular Hereafter (2010). While much of the story takes place after the supremely well-crafted 10-minute opening sequence, it still maintains a palpable sense of dread throughout.

The Impossible lives up to its title in every way, and admittedly, it’s hard to watch and not feel a twinge of uncomfortableness, like Paul Greengrass’ United 93. This is a true story and is still fresh in our minds. Wisely, Bayona and his excellent cast never romanticize or exploit the tragedy, instead doing a remarkable job of giving it respect. A challenging film that defies the genre for which it is labeled, this is one to watch, and another great showing by McGregor.

The Impossible (2005)

Film Credits

Director: J.A. Bayona
Writers: Sergio G. Sánchez, María Belón (story)
Stars: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland