Film reviews: The Impossible

Holidaying in Thailand at Christmas, 2004, Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three boys are having an idyllic vacation. The audience understands, however, that the first few moments of The Impossible (12A) are but a prelude to one of the most catastrophic natural disasters of recent times. When the tsunami strikes, and a wall of water thunders through their resort, the family is ripped apart.

Written by Sergio Sanchez and directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, The Impossible is a tale based on the real-life experiences of the Belon family, and one which keeps the traditional, comic-book Hollywood version of heroism to a minimum. Instead, as the family is broken up into two units — Maria and eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) are swept away by the flood, while Henry and the younger boys regroup at the resort and begin the heartbreaking attempt to find Maria and Lucas, dead or alive — the movie trades strongly in old-fashioned virtues such as perseverance, faith and loyalty. Watts and McGregor are individually excellent, with Watts in particular in compelling form, not least because her character quickly succumbs to her wounds and she finds herself depending on Lucas at first, and then the chaotic state of the overwhelmed Thai health system. Henry, meanwhile, has to make a kind of Sophie’s choice: does he stay with his young sons and keep them safe, or abandon them to the kindness of strangers and go searching for his wife and oldest son?

Bayona expertly juggles the various storylines, maintaining tension despite our growing awareness that all will eventually turn out well for the Belon family; but even that awareness is shot through with horror, as writer and director lead us through the shattered landscape, the innumerable lost lives, the devastated locals and tourists. It seems as if Bayona is employing the true story of those who survived the catastrophe in order to commemorate all those who didn’t — in one particularly touching scene, McGregor sits in a ruined hotel listening to the stories of those who have lost loved ones, the various parts played by real-life survivors of the tsunami. A harrowing film at times, but one with genuine, unsentimental feelgood moments, The Impossible packs a very powerful emotional punch.

Quartet (12A) makes for a rather genteel counterpoint to the horrors of catastrophic disaster, being a story of how former gods and goddesses of the opera world learn to come to terms with their mortality. Set in a retirement home for musicians and singers, it features Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Tom Courtenay as three members of a formerly world-famous quartet, all of whom are chafing at being cooped up in an old folks’ home. The arrival of the quartet’s fourth member, a notorious diva played by Maggie Smith, adds some spice to their humdrum lives, not least because she broke Tom Courtenay’s heart many years ago. Can the four forgive and forget and perform together one last time? Adapted from his own play by Ronald Harwood, and directed by Dustin Hoffman, Quartet attempts to embrace the storylines of too many characters — had Hoffman settled on exploring the doomed relationship between Smith and Courtenay, for example, the film might well have had more heft and emotional depth. That said, it’s a slight but enjoyable fluffy affair, with Connolly, Smith, Courtenay and Michael Gambon taking turns to have a good old chew on the scenery, all the while tossing out one-liners as if their pensions depended on it.

Also released this week is Playing for Keeps (12A), in which Gerard Butler plays George, a former football star who is now coaching his young son’s team. A prolific womaniser during his career, George is divorced from the long-suffering Stacie (Jessica Biel), but is hoping to get his act together and become a more appropriate role model for his son. Unfortunately, a bevy of hot soccer moms — including Uma Thurman, Judy Greer and Catherine Zeta-Jones — have other plans for George. At the time of going to press, no media screening had been made available.

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