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This year’s holiday films: Don’t expect tinsel

Does witnessing someone else's pain enrich our understanding of being human? That's a question that an unusual number of holiday releases are asking this year. There are films about personal cataclysms: injury in Rust and Bone, adultery in Anna Karenina, mental illness and aging in The Silver Linings Playbook and Amour. Lincoln and Django Unchained take on the scourge of slavery. Les Misérables, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty look at tumultuous moments in history and their violent consequences. And Life of Pi and the new true-life drama The Impossible show people suffering in the aftermath of disaster. Each employs wildly disparate methods – exploding bladders of blood in Django Unchained; stagy artifice in Anna Karenina; dispassionate observation in Amour and Zero Dark Thirty – to try to navigate that uneasy space between entertainment and exploitation.

The Impossible, which opens Christmas Day, uses the simplest approach: Stick to the facts. On Boxing Day, 2004, a Spanish woman named Maria Belon was vacationing in Thailand with her husband and their three sons when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck. Swept apart by the wave (a startlingly vivid sequence – I'd never imagined how dense with debris that water would be), Belon and her family were eventually reunited through a series of remarkable coincidences.

The film, directed by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) and written by Sergio Sanchez from Belon's story, changes the family's nationality to British, and its stars, Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, faced the many challenges that a water-based movie inevitably entails, including spending six weeks in giant tanks shooting underwater scenes. But their biggest challenge was a tonal one: How do you root for and cry along with this one family, when you know that more than 200,000 died, and millions still mourn them?

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"When the script first came to me, I wasn't sure about the idea – would it be a disaster movie that was somehow spectacular? That would be so wrong," Watts said in a recent phone interview. "But as I read it, I got caught up in Maria's sense of courage. She seemed like a proper hero. Then I spoke to her, and she said no, that's not what it was about – it was all down to luck. She was really emphatic about that. She said, 'If anything I did was heroic, what would that mean for the others who weren't so lucky?' The only thing that she would say was that she felt connected to her instincts, so I concentrated on that."

"If ever it felt like the movie was dictating the story, I would immediately speak to [director] Juan Antonio and say, 'This doesn't feel right,'" McGregor said during a hotel-room interview in September, when The Impossible premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. "If a shot would feel too heroic or cinematic, we'd discuss it, and I'm pleased to say I think he kept that balance very well." During each moment of triumph, the camera pulls back just enough so that viewers never lose sight of the larger tragedy.

Both Watts, 44, and McGregor, 41, are also parents, and brought their knowledge of the selflessness and intensity of that relationship to their characters. (He's been married to the production designer Eve Mavrakis since 1995, and they have four daughters, whose ages range from 16 to 2. Watts has two sons, aged 5 and 4, with her partner of seven years, the actor Liev Schreiber.)

"I've been a father for 16 years," McGregor says. "It's something I know a great deal about, but never had the chance to explore on screen before. There's something unique about the love a parent feels for his child. I can't feel that same way about other people's children, and this was an extreme situation to explore that in." But he drew the line at "sitting down before a take and imagining losing my own kids. I couldn't put myself through that," he says. "I wouldn't want to."

Shooting in Thailand, Watts and McGregor were inundated with tsunami stories, good and bad, from crew members, waiters, hotel staff and onlookers who experienced it, and eventually came to accept that their story was "a tiny piece of something too big to comprehend," Watts says. "But we felt a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility to make sure everything we did was as accurate as possible, because of the suffering that so many went through."

The night shoots at a Thai beach resort, after the filmmakers had made it look destroyed by the wave, were especially evocative, McGregor says: "With all the dark, and hearing the sea beyond, it was a strange feeling on-set. A lot of the Thai crew were talking about seeing spirits, people on the beach. The atmosphere was quite profound, really."

To create as much verisimilitude as possible, Bayona insisted on using real water, not CGI waves, even though it meant shooting the actual resort with the actors, followed by a scale model that could be flooded, and then combining the two. "We didn't know it was going to work until we got the first rough matting of Naomi in the water," McGregor says. "When Juan Antonio showed it to us, you could see the relief on his face."

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"Who knew I'd be swimming for six weeks?" Watts asks. "After King Kong, I swore to myself that I would never do anything action-driven again, because it just about killed me. But it's sort of like childbirth." She laughs. "You forget."

She hopes to remember, though, how Belon made her feel. Watts has played her share of true-life characters, including Princess Diana and Valerie Plame, but meeting Belon, she says, "made an impact on my life in a fairly profound way. She's a deeply impressive woman. If I met her today at a party, and I didn't know about the tsunami, I might not be able to relate to her, because she's full of positivity; there's nothing jaded about her. I'm more cynical, full of self-doubt, and second-guessing myself. I would think, 'Oh God, I can't relate.' But when you know what she's gone through, it's amazing that she has this sense of fearlessness now, and is in love with life. When I see her I want to breathe her in."

Ultimately, that's what The Impossible, and so many of this season's films, try to depict: the moving realization that "in awful situations, our humanity comes through," Watts says. "Culture, language – all goes out the window, and we all become levelled on one plane. Despite the horror of the situation, we're reminded that when we become a collective force, we can be great, and at our best."

So if you're heading out to a holiday film, brace yourself for a bumpy ride. And bring tissues.

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