International Tragedy through the Lens of Intimate Family Drama in The Impossible

Director J. A. Bayona brings the tsunami to horrifying life on the big screen in THE IMPOSSIBLE.

In December of 2004, Maria Belon and her family were among the many who experienced first-hand one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the world when a tsunami overwhelmed large swaths of Southeast Asia including the coastal resort area of Thailand where Belon and her family were spending the holidays. Director Juan Antonio Bayona (who previously put viewers through tear-soaked thrills in the Catholic ghost story, The Orphanage) has adapted Belon’s harrowing tale for the silver screen. Here Maria Belon becomes Maria Bennet (the incomparable Naomi Watts) and her husband is played by Ewan McGregor and three boys by newcomers Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast. They’re a picture perfect beautiful British family living abroad, and Bayona, in ways both Spielbergian and Hitchcockian, puts them through the wringer in this tsunami horror-show tear-jerk thriller that pulls all the right strings.

The Impossible is worth the price of a ticket just for the ten minute tsunami sequence, frighteningly realized without CGI and done all with scale models and a giant water tank. Bayona in the sequences building up to the disaster uses sound effects for foreshadowing, and by replaying the tsunami through the eyes of Maria and her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland in a riveting star-making performance), he totally immerses the viewer in the chaos of the event tossing the two actors around like rag dolls in the deluge of water and menacing debris that tears and rips at human flesh relentlessly.

Watts, who’s lived inside a suicidal actress’ mind and somersaulted down a ravine with a giant gorilla in past roles, has never been this physically battered before, and hers is a performance of raw emotional strength. She’s the perfect actress for this kind of role. The better part of the movie tracks Maria and Lucas’ journey to a hospital where she needs intensive care for a horrendous leg wound rendered in graphic detail that makes you feel like your leg was torn to shreds. Along the way Lucas learns to care for his increasingly frail mother while also helping other survivors reunite with loved ones.

Naomi Watts delivers yet another Oscar-caliber performance in THE IMPOSSIBLE.

Meanwhile, father Henry (McGregor – bravely sympathetic and excellent at playing a man at wit’s end) and the other brothers have survived and are together back at the wreck of the resort. Henry becomes determined to track down Maria and Lucas at all costs, and he, too, begins a journey where he encounters other people in similarly dire predicaments.


The Impossible earns the reward for the most horribly marketed film of recent memory. Anyone who saw the first trailer some months ago witnessed what was essentially a music-video montage version of the entire film from beginning to end revealing every crucial detail involved in the family’s survival. Now, of course, anyone who cared to could’ve read up on Maria Belon’s story on the internet, but the trailer did a great disservice to Bayona by revealing every detail of how that story played out on-screen. In the actual film, Bayona does an excellent job building suspense through Hitchcockian foreshadowing and Spielbergian “cute kids in jeopardy and struggling through family drama” heartstrings pulling.

There’s also been nasty and poorly targeted humbug around the film’s focus on the survival of a wealthy European family and not on the thousands of Asian lives lost in the tragedy. What those critics failed to realize and respect is that this film is only about Maria Belon’s story – and according to her, from all accounts, it’s a faithful depiction of the spirit of the events she and her family lived through. These critics also did not obviously watch the film closely enough, and though the focus was indeed on one tourist family trapped abroad in the wake of an unimaginable natural disaster, Bayona tastefully provided glimpses into the large-scale tragedy with scenes of body bags lined up in long rows, decimated villages, orphaned Thai children, and pictures of a once happy Thai family strewn about a destroyed house Henry traipsed through to remind us of the homes that were destroyed, the multitudes of families torn apart, and the countless stories yet to be told. Every step of the way Bayona took a humanist approach and depicted people coming together, reaching out and offering others help regardless of from where they came. The bottom line is Belon had every right to tell her story from her point of view, and Bayona took the artistic liberty to use it as a way to channel the emotional cost of an international tragedy through the lens of an intimate family drama.

If there’s any fault to the film, the side story involving the toe-headed moppet Daniel seemed almost too much in the cloying sentiment department, but it was at least used to show the evolution of Lucas’ character. Also, the climactic “everyone running around the chaotic hospital and just missing each other” sequence that ends in a tearful reunion seemed a bit too…shall we say…cinematic. But who’s to say these brief episodes weren’t true to the spirit of the family’s feelings at the time?

And why squabble when the finished product is a well-acted, well-directed piece of thrilling tear-jerk cinema made better by being based on a true story? If we can’t tell these kinds of uplifting stories in the wake of such grand scale tragedy, then what stories are we allowed to tell? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world of censorship like that.

Written by David H. Schleicher

Below is great photo from the LA Times of Watts and McGregor with the real life Belon family upon whose story the film is based at the premiere in Toronto:

Watts, the Belons and McGregor
Watts, the Belons and McGregor


  1. Thankfully this one releases here in a couple of days and living in a city which was hit by the tsunami, I can’t miss this one. But honestly, Watts is my primary motivation to watch this flick.

    I avoided the spoilers, so I’ll reserve my comments on your review, for now.

    BTW, before The Impossible, Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, I think, had one of the best tsunami sequences (CGI, of course);

  2. “The Impossible is worth the price of a ticket just for the ten minute tsunami sequence, frighteningly realized without CGI and done all with scale models and a giant water tank.”

    Indeed David! THE IMPOSSIBLE finished in my own Top Ten films of 2012 list, and I’ve already seen it twice in theaters over the break. Naomi Watts delivers an incredible physical performance, but the young British actor Tom Holland as the oldest son Lucas is absolutely extraordinary! This is a wrenching film about separation and resilence, both impressively filmed and scored, and one that leaves you drained. I wasn’t especially bothered about Daniel, but I understand what you are saying. Fabulous piece here!

  3. The tsunami scene was extremely well done, but meh, I’m with the humbugs. A tsunami destroys millions of lives. These people live through a scary few days and get shipped off to Singapore. The story missed the fact that it was all about privilege. It was completely glossed over. Her story seemed completely oblivious to it. She was on a vacation half way around the world, a doctor that didn’t even need to work! She doesnt let her kids drink pop. How enlightened! One other European refuses to let her husband use a phone. Oh, how callous! This story’s most interesting aspect is just how oblivious it is to its privilege.

    • While to some degree I agree that there was a subtext around this notion of “privilege” – as Sam points out above, this was a film about “separation and resilience” and attempts to give a “what would any family do in this situation?” look at being trapped in an unfamiliar land during a catastrophe. I don’t think this family’s story is any less compelling because they were one of privilege. The complaints along these lines seem to be hung up on a hypothetical film (from the “locals” POV about the deaths of thousands) that wasn’t made rather than looking at and critiquing the film that was made (about the survival of one family from the “tourist” POV). Again, I hold there is nothing wrong about telling this family’s story and how they survived. Was their fear any less valid than the fear of any one else (regardless of from where they came) who lived through this?

      If you didn’t like or connect to the film’s characters or to the film overall, that’s fine (and we can debate the film’s merits on its own grounds) – to each their own, but I think it’s insulting to the Belon family to insinuate their story doesn’t matter.

  4. Amazing effects and stunts, along with and solid performances balance out some artistic lapses and ethical questions in this true story of one family’s experiences of the horrendous Tsunami that killed 300,000. The downsides; there’s something a little off-putting about choosing a white, privileged family as a focus, while at the same time showing almost exclusively other white people as suffering and afraid in a disaster that killed far more local people than tourists. The Thai’s are certainly shown in a good light, kindly helping all these suffering whites, but even in the hospital, almost every face we see in a bed is a white one. That hint of odd racial insensitivity is also underlined by replacing the original family, who were Spanish and dark, and making them into a gorgeous blond English family, a telling choice in a ‘true’ story. On a more general level, the film can feel manipulative, from the tear jerking score, to the multiple carefully framed “will they spot each other?” shots that feel like a horror film’s self-conscious suspense fames, but that cinematic technique feels distractingly artificial in this more naturalistic setting. There’s no question it’s exciting and at times quite moving, but I couldn’t help thinking I might have felt even more deeply if it wasn’t pushing so hard to control my emotions.

    • Graham – you might be interested to know that in Thailand the casualties from the tsunami were split about 50/50 between locals and tourists. Of course in other countries hit by the disaster, the local death counts were far higher…but this wasn’t a movie about that…this was a movie about one tourist family in Thailand that survived. Also, if you look at the picture of the Belon family, I find it odd that anyone would consider them “dark” – whatever that means. Bayona has spoken his peace about the casting – yes, there was a hint of making the film more universal and “sellable” – but I liked the fact that they never identified where this family was really from (they lived in Japan – but that was not clearly their homeland – this was never specified – again a conscious effort to make this “universal”) Anyhow…I could go on an on…and I would encourage anyone to check out the link above to the thread on the IMDb that dispels many of these complaints.

      I’m with you on the “manipulative” artistic choices concerning the score and some of those closing scenes.

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