‘The Impossible’ movie review: Naomi Watts, Tom Holland in Thai tsunami drama

A gripping true-story account of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that devastated Thailand, Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible focuses on a family of British tourists who struggled to survive the ordeal. Bayona treads a fine line here: had the film just focused on the tourists and their ruined holiday, it would’ve come off as risible. Instead, it’s a humanistic portrait that gives the disaster both an intimate perspective and a frightening scope. 

Early scenes introduce us (but don’t necessarily endear us) to the family, upper-class British expatriates living in Japan and coming to a Khao Luk resort for Christmas: Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria Bennett (Naomi Watts) and their three young boys Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). 

We know what’s coming, and the film wastes little time getting there. One minute the family is out by the pool, the next they’re swept away in a giant tidal wave. Mom and Lucas are carried away by the wave, eventually seeking refuge in a tall tree, but Maria is badly injured and in need of medical attention. 

Naomi Watts earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Maria. The character is put through absolute torture for nearly the entirety of the film: puncture wounds, broken bones, vomiting blood, infection, psychological distress; characters being tortured in horror films don’t go through such traumatic ordeals. 

It’s frightening stuff, and it almost goes too far: just when you think it’s over, there’s a flood flashback in which the character is thrown around the screen like a ragdoll. I was shocked to see the film rated PG-13 in the US. 

But the real standout performer here is young Tom Holland. Lucas is the true central character in the film, going from spoiled kid to survivalist in a matter of minutes, fighting for his mother’s health and trying to do the right thing by others who are searching for loved ones. Holland’s performance is heartrending, and reaches some truly devastating moments.

The production is phenomenal: I can’t recall such a vivid and terrifying portrayal of a natural disaster in any other film (the film easily bests similar material in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter). Bayona’s direction is incredibly efficient, never wasting a beat.  

If there’s one negative about The Impossible, it’s that it doesn’t always feel completely realistic; a rather Hollywood moment towards the finale doesn’t help matters. Exactly how much of the film is real and how much is invented is impossible to say, though the production seems to have taken the required effort to get things right. 

The Bennetts in the film were originally the Belóns: not a British, but a Spanish family vacationing in Thailand. It’s a curious change – especially considering that the film is a Spanish, and not a Hollywood, production – but one that (with the casting of big names in the lead roles) has probably helped The Impossible to a healthy worldwide gross. 

Otherwise, one would assume that the film sticks close to the true story of Maria and Enrique Belón: the family worked with screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez and were present in Thailand during filming, and director Bayona “involve[ed] the Belon family in the production and consult[ed] real-life survivors and volunteers on “every important decision” in the film.”

Bayona previously made The Orphanage, one of the scarier ghost stories in recent memory. The Impossible is even scarier. It’s not an easy film to watch – survivors of trauma (not just related to what’s portrayed in the film) are likely to find it impossible to sit through – but it’s a rich and worthwhile experience filled with some palpable terror and real emotion.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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