February 5th 2013 03:39
Not for the first time, Naomi Watts is emotionally put through the wringer in Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible (2012), a gruelling, systematically recounted tale of a family’s plight in the wake of the Indonesian tsunami in 2004. This formidable yet underrated actress seems to gravitate towards stories in which families confront danger from external forces as in Michael Haneke’s useless English-language remake of his own Funny Games (2007) and Jim Sheridan’s ill-advised Dream House (2011).
The special effects for this largely Spanish production recreate the terror of the killer waves with chilling conviction; as it strikes without warning we follow Maria and oldest son Thomas as they're swept along, the damaging, potentially lethal pieces of debris threatening to pierce their skin in a thousand places. The awe-inspiring ruthlessness of this unstoppable tide and terrifying display of nature running amok immerses us into the drama of survival. Though first there are some thin but succinct expository scenes that effectively convey the kind of familial bond that becomes the glue that holds our interest in these people’s eventual fate.
Essentially, The Impossible is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit and knowing the true story that inspired it (with the original family replaced, naturally, by Anglo-Saxon counterparts) undercuts the hope of any outlandish twists. The finishing line is in clear view, in other words, and though we’re just waiting to be guided there by skilful hands, Bayona's direction is admittedly first-rate. His composer Fernando Velazquez is a real asset too anchoring his score in a moving main theme that ennobles the family’s cause without blatantly manipulating our emotions with a saccharine excess.
Perhaps the aftermath of the floods assumes a going-through-the-motions but the grim tone is admirably maintained, avoiding for the most part the kind of overwrought emotional reactions that usually sink these real-life retelling ventures with their overloaded sentimentality. Yet, despite noble intentions, you can’t help pondering, ultimately, the superflousness of the project which essentially exploits real-life misery in the most obvious, shameless way. The theme of survival can be approached from a thousand different angles but in the end there’s nothing like the blatant symbolic power of real-life events to prop up a lofty, universally-tested idea.
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