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film review

In The Impossible, we know the tsunami is coming, but the sheer speed of its appearance still takes us by surprise.JOSE HARO/The Associated Press

Urgent yet measured, like the onrushing tide, The Impossible is a real-life disaster flick with a compelling twist. The film doesn't build to the climax, the tsunami that ravaged South Asia eight years ago, but essentially starts with it. In the long denouement that follows, one genre gives way to another, the disaster to a survival tale, and the suspense mounts over the looming question. In this profiled family of five – mother, father and their three young sons – someone must have lived to tell the tale, to put the true into the story. But who? And how?

First, the calm before the climax. On a plane packed with tourists, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) tend to their boys while preparing for touchdown, fastening their seat-belts and their nerves. The Thai resort, brand-new and posh, welcomes them with a little surprise, switching their reserved room on the third floor for another at ground level – the ocean view is better. Yes, that detail, like others just as neatly planted, awaits the approaching menace.

Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (who toyed with horror in his feature debut, The Orphanage) works his lens in close here, always controlled and never jumpy – after all, this is a warm, tightly knit clan off on their December holiday. Christmas Day arrives – presents are exchanged, the snorkelling is gorgeous. Then the fateful morning dawns, with the family at the pool under a blue sky. Obviously, we know the tsunami is coming but the sheer speed of its appearance still takes us by surprise – a brief rumbling, mere seconds pass, a quick glance out to sea and there it is, immense and inescapable.

Now Bayona turns the camera loose, cutting immediately to an underwater shot of Maria engulfed and violently spinning, like the massive debris all around her, an explosion of white froth punctuated by a white screen. A beat's pause. A gasping Maria surfaces, spots her eldest son Lucas, gets dragged back under by a second wave, surfaces again, shouts his name, reaches, flails… The two are stunned by this eruption of raw power, and so are we – the sequence is heart-stopping.

The boy is unhurt, but Maria's leg is badly damaged, cut down to the bone. However, as Lucas (Tom Holland) boosts her into the relative safety of a tree's upper branches, it's not the mangled limb that troubles him. It's the sight of his mother's breast, exposed by her torn blouse, and he turns his head away, embarrassed even in the midst of horror – that's an exquisitely human moment. Only then does Bayona pull his camera up and out for an overhead shot. The devastation is vast. Where once there was land, there is only the seething sea and all that bobs atop it, not least the flotilla of mangled bodies.

Thai villagers rescue them, transporting Maria and Lucas along a road strewn with carnage and on to the local hospital, where a different chaos reigns. In the crowded and panicky corridors, the injured keep company with the dying, survivors frantically seek out the lost, communication is hard and misidentification is easy. Prostrate on a cot, Maria moves in and out of consciousness, leaving us to wonder whether she's thinking what we are: Unseen since nature struck, what in hell happened to Henry and the other kids?

At this point, the picture is barely beyond the first act, but I should stop now: The survival drama, which is gripping, mustn't be spoiled. Even to comment on the performances would run the risk of giving too much away. Let's just say that the acting is uniformly strong in what is typically not an actor's genre. However, it must also be said that, around the two-thirds mark, the film loses much of its suspense and noticeably stalls. And don't expect too many faces that aren't white. Unlike in the HBO series, Tsunami: The Aftermath, the Thai people are largely absent from their own tragedy here, visible only at the edges of the frame as helpful villagers or overtaxed nurses. This is deliberately one family's perspective but, from within that tourist's-eye view, it resonates – a harrowing account of imperilled strangers in a suddenly strange land.

So if the window is narrow, the gaze is not. The Impossible looks back at a natural calamity with unflinching honesty. It sees fear and pain, it sees fortitude and bravery, but mainly it sees this: In that raging instant when the sea becomes its own monster, there's precious little to separate the devoured from the spared – nothing but the thin wedge of luck.

Editor's note: The headline on the original version of this article incorrectly stated the tsunami in reference occurred in 2006. This version has been corrected.

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