Proof positive that modern Spanish filmmaking is now on a par with the Anglo-American mode of mass-market entertainment, The Impossible adapts the true story of a Spanish family that survived the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand into a disaster melodrama with an international cast meant for a world audience. Despite being only the second feature from Catalan helmer Juan Antonio Bayona after the well-regarded chiller The Orphanage (also scripted by writer Sergio Sánchez), The Impossible is also proof of what a filmmaker can lose when he trains his sights onto a wider audience. The new film is a supremely accomplished example of anonymous, purely functional storytelling aimed at extracting the maximum amount of emotional response from the biggest audience possible - in short, an efficient calling card for major studio work. Nothing wrong with that, but it's ultimately an annoyance: The Orphanage suggested there was something more at work in Mr. Bayona, and there are also moments in The Impossible hinting at an entirely different, more emotionally honest film that never really materializes.

     The Bennetts, a family of British expats in Japan holidaying in Thailand for Christmas, are here stand-ins for the real Belón Alvárez family, with mother María supervising Mr. Sánchez's script for accuracy. The director's reliance on the cast suggests an interest in getting at the vulnerability of human emotions when confronted with inimaginable disaster that the film's conventionally melodramatic narrative arc and syrupy orchestral score marking the big emotional moments never really do justice to. The narrative structuring doesn't really help either: after a first half following the travails of Maria (an impressive Naomi Watts) and the eldest son Lucas (a revelatory performance from Tom Holland) that piles on thickly if effectively the expansive, visual-effects melodrama, The Impossible shifts gears to father Henry (a typically understated Ewan McGregor) and the two youngest sons's parallel search for Maria and Lucas, in a more subdued storyline that, sadly, ends up being more signposted than truly explored. The cast perform with admirable restraint and earnestness, but their valiant efforts are unable to extricate The Impossible from the tropes of a standard disaster-movie melodrama done with proficiency but little personality.

Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Marta Etura, Sönke Möhring, Geraldine Chaplin

Director: J. A. Bayona
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sánchez, from a story by María Belón
Cinematography: Oscar Faura  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Fernando Velázquez
Designer: Eugenio Caballero
Costumes: Sparka Lee Hall, Anne Bingemann, María Reyes
Editors: Elena Ruíz, Bernat Vilaplana
Visual effects: Félix Bergés, Pau Costa
Make-up effects: David Martí, Montse Ribé
Producers: Belén Atienza, Alvaro Augustín, Enrique López-Lavigne, Ghislain Barrois (Apaches Entertainment and Telecinco Cinema in association with Canal Plus and La Trini)
Spain, 2012, 113 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5 (Lisbon), January 17th 2013


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