Reviewer's rating: 3.5/5

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The Impossible - Trailer

An account of a family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the mayhem of one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time.

PT2M29S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-24rhw 620 349

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Reader rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars (1 vote)

THE IMPOSSIBLE
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
Screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez, Story by Maria Belon
Rated M, 114 minutes
In cinemas everywhere

CRUDELY described, The Impossible is an attempt to wrestle a feelgood film out of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

In its defence, it has truth on its side. Sort of. The script tells of the experiences of a Spanish family who were at the Orchid Resort in Phuket when the wave hit. Box-office economics, however, has transformed them into Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor with three British children.

I guess the raising of enough money to simulate a tsunami necessitates the presence of a star or two, and they do give it their all. Watts spends the second half of the film confined to a hospital bed in imminent danger of dying, yet she has scored nominations for an Oscar and a Golden Globe, although that's hardly surprising. Awards do gravitate to the critically ill. Hence the excitement about Anne Hathaway's turn as poor, doomed Fantine.

We learn little about the family as they fly into Phuket apart from the fact that Watts's Maria is a nervous air traveller and the eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), is suffering from a serious case of pre-teen obnoxiousness. Since we know what's in store for them and they don't, these details serve as none too subtle anticipatory notes. And they're intensified as the plane lands and they head off to a blissful day and night celebrating a tropical Christmas.

Then comes Boxing Day and the holiday becomes a battle for survival. Henry (McGregor) and the three boys are in the pool when the hotel is engulfed. Maria is slammed into a plate glass window that shatters, and she is pushed through the hotel's ground floor and out the other side. Carried by the current and convinced her family is dead, she's overjoyed to catch sight of Lucas. Clinging to one another and grabbing at mangrove branches, they finally drag themselves out of the water on to swampy ground. But Maria is close to collapse with a grisly gash in her calf and chest injuries.

The film was made by director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez, the Spanish duo responsible for the classy supernatural thriller The Orphanage (2007). They shot some of it in Thailand at the Orchid Resort and at the hospital where the real-life Maria - Maria Alvarez Belon - was treated.

But the tsunami sequence involved a tank in an Alicante studio and 132,000 litres of water, and the result is terrifying as well as being remarkably faithful to the Belon family's account of their ordeal. You share their helplessness as the wave looms above them, seeming to come out of nowhere after a brief, mysterious roar is heard. And you follow Maria through the seemingly endless minutes she spends underwater.

Not surprisingly, these are the strongest sequences. Afterwards, it becomes harder to overlook the fact that we're seeing the disaster strictly from the point of view of the country's tourists. The hospital is filled with Europeans, Scandinavians, Britons and Americans. There are no insights into the extent of the Thais' suffering. They appear only as good samaritans. And while star power can sell a film, it can also prove a distraction in a story as firmly rooted in reality as this one. Maria and Lucas may be close to being convinced that Henry is dead but we know better. Otherwise, why cast McGregor?

It's clear that Bayona and Sanchez are conscious of all these things. So they make the most of Lucas's efforts to reunite members of other families as he trawls the hospital corridors in search of his own family. I'm sure that's exactly as it happened but Sanchez's dialogue, which never rises above the serviceable and slightly mawkish, infuses these scenes with a strong whiff of the dutiful and the contrived.

What makes them work in the end is Holland's performance, which hums with all the energy and pathos of a kid pushed to the extreme and not daring to stop running for fear of being overwhelmed by the horror of it all. The Oscar nomination should have been his.

But weighing on the film most heavily is the thought that it's setting out to make something inspirational out of a calamity that killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. The thought of all those tragedies is one we can't escape. Yet when a filmmaker is presented with a story as extraordinary as that of the Belons, why walk away from it? It happened and, in the end, Bayona manages to make it both a story of survival and a memorial to those who were not so lucky.

Twitter: @SandraHFilm