(M, 114 minutes.) Opens Thursday.
No actor suffers like Naomi Watts. Whether she's screaming in terror while being held in the mitt of a giant ape in King Kong or mournfully grieving for her lost family in 21 Grams, the Australian is at her most compelling when she's in her personal depths.
The Impossible - Trailer
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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.
Watts has the expressive face of a silent-movie star, and she can make distress rhapsodic without a word. Happiness is wasted on her characters. That talent is put to fine use in J.A. Bayona's The Impossible, in which Watts plays a survivor of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which killed about 230,000 people.
As a wounded mother desperately clinging to one child while trying not to believe that her husband and two younger children are dead, the Academy Award-nominated Watts is utterly convincing.
As an Anglicised version of the Spanish family whose tale inspired the film, Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry Bennett, British expatriates based in Japan who arrive at a Thai beach resort with a trio of children and the usual stresses, all of which are swept away by a wall of water.
Terrifyingly realised, the tsunami smashes on impact and then creates a torrid, dirty ocean on which cars and animals float by.
Much of the film focuses on Watts' Maria and the oldest of her three sons, 15-year-old Lucas (Tom Holland, recalling Christian Bale in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun), whose deepest, strongest urges - joint survival, uncompromising love - rise with the water.
The disaster gouges flesh and civilised illusion - Maria, a doctor, tells Lucas that if her leg turns black, it will be amputated - and the filmmaking is equally vivid.
Bayona, also a Spaniard, directed 2007's The Orphanage and his background in horror films informs The Impossible. At one point, Maria vomits black gunk she ingested while underwater.
There are also dangers in the recovery as children separated from parents are mistakenly swept up for care and put in transit. Bayona's tsunami, a mixture of the digital and weeks spent in a large water tank, is so grippingly real, he references it several times, but that's also because disaster movies struggle to distinguish their latter scenes, and The Impossible is no different.
The luck of survival can't be explained, and, at a certain point, reunions can be predictably familiar, but the picture's sheer physical impact endures and illuminates.