Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons begin the winter vacation in Thailand, looking forward to a few days in a tropical paradise. But on the morning of December 26th, as the family relaxes around the pool after their Christmas festivities the night before, a terrifying roar rises up from the centre of the earth. Based on a true story, The Impossible is the unforgettable account of a family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the mayhem of one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time. 

South East Asian tsunami survival saga is a test of endurance.

If you’re contemplating going to The Impossible, here’s a question you might like to consider: How high is your tolerance for watching almost relentless pain, chaos and trauma?

Bayona too often sets out to shamelessly manipulate the audience’s emotions

Those with a high threshold will probably appreciate—'enjoy’ isn’t an appropriate word—Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona’s gruelling saga of one family who were literally swept away in the 2004 Asian tsunami. Those who are skittish about witnessing an intense, visceral ordeal should approach with caution, if at all.

None of which implies Naomi Watts isn’t deserving of her nomination for best lead actress at the Oscars, where she’ll face stiff competition from Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour; the likely winner according to many pundits) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild).

Watts has perfected the art of playing troubled, put-upon women and here her character, Maria Bennett, endures hell in paradise. The film opens with Japanese-based, English couple Maria, a non-practicing doctor, and her businessman husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) jetting into Thailand on Christmas Eve for a holiday.

After the first five or six minutes of screen time, their idyllic stay at a new luxurious beach resort at Khao Lak is shattered on Boxing Day when the tsunami thunders in, a 10-minute sequence that’s longer, more vivid and terrifyingly realistic than the prologue in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter.

That section and the immediate aftermath are a remarkable feat of filmmaking, expertly shot by cinematographer Óscar Faura on location in Thailand and in a water tank in Spain, rather than relying primarily on CGI-created special effects.

Maria is separated from Lucas and eventually grabs hold of him amid a rushing torrent of water. She’s a bloody, battered mess, with horrific injuries to one leg, forcing Lucas to become the responsible adult and help drag her to safety. Lucas fears his little brothers are dead; his mother fiercely resists that awful thought.

The survival tale then focuses on the family members’ desperate efforts to reunite, with some loss of tension and a wavering dramatic focus. Many tears are shed on screen, to the point where the numbed viewer may well be dry-eyed at the finish.

The screenplay by Sergio G. Sánchez (with whom Bayona collaborated on the director’s only previous feature, the Spanish-language ghost movie The Orphanage) is based on a true story by Maria Belon, a Spanish woman who survived the tsunami with her family.

The climactic scenes seem highly contrived. If it really happened that way, well, I stand corrected. However, Bayona too often sets out to shamelessly manipulate the
audience’s emotions, including Fernando Velasquez’s score which strives for soaring, operatic heights but overreaches.

Watts’ performance is flawless but it’s not easy to watch her character scream and cry, racked with pain and fear: suffering which isn’t much relieved when she’s taken to a primitive hospital. The film’s strength, apart from the stunning visuals, is the affecting mother-son relationship with Lucas, which is put to the severest test. In his first live action role, Holland, who earned his spurs in the West End production of Billy Elliot the Musical, impresses as the courageous boy.

McGregor brings to his role the kind of humanity, warmth and grit you’d expect from a highly professional actor, but he and Watts inevitably are caught in the narrative’s overtly sentimental cross currents.

The sound mix and audio special effects in the re-enactments are phenomenal, heightening the realism to a nerve-jangling pitch.

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1 hour 54 min
In Cinemas 24 January 2013,