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Movie Review

In ‘The Impossible,’ one family’s tsunami saga

From left: Samuel Joslin, Ewan McGregor, and Oaklee Pendergast in “The Impossible.”

Jose Haro/Summit Entertainment

From left: Samuel Joslin, Ewan McGregor, and Oaklee Pendergast in “The Impossible.”

Jose Haro/Summit Entertainment

From left: Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Tom Holland, Ewan McGregor, and Naomi Watts in “The Impossible.”

‘The Impossible” is an earnest, extremely grueling, prodigiously crafted true-life drama that takes one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history and reduces it to a bad day at Club Med.

All right, make that a very bad day. When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hits without warning in the film’s opening minutes, we see it through the terrified eyes of the film’s protagonists, a British family vacationing at a Thai beach resort. The father, Henry (Ewan McGregor) is in the pool with the younger boys, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). Oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) is off to the side having an adolescent sulk. And mother Maria (Naomi Watts) is crouched before a pool house’s glass walls as she looks up to see distant palm trees crashing down and a wall of brown water crest high above the roof of the resort.

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The following 20 minutes put the audience right in the middle of the maelstrom. Swept underwater into a raging current, Maria collides with cars and tree branches like pathetically vulnerable flotsam, gets reunited in mid-cataract with Lucas, and eventually comes to earth far inland, grievously wounded. These scenes have an immediacy that obliterates an audience’s bearings as easily as it does the family’s casual tourist entitlement. Director Juan Antonio Bayona and his production and effects teams want to show us what disaster looks like from the very center, and they succeed all too well.

Yet “The Impossible” becomes steadily more ordinary as it drags itself from the high-water mark back to safety. Amidst the tinderstick wreckage, Maria and Lucas take refuge in a tree with an imperturbable little boy (Johan Sundberg); our one good look at the injury to the mother’s leg — a shocking hole of ragged flesh — raises the stakes to unbearable levels. Henry, meanwhile, has found his other two sons and is desperate to locate his wife and Lucas. The film becomes an “Incredible Journey”-style ordeal that highlights the drama of one family against a backdrop of human chaos.

Which has its problems. The actual family to whom these events occurred is Spanish (as are the filmmakers), and the decision to change that family into Nordic-looking, English-speaking characters who can be played by globally recognizable movie stars is odd but understandable, at least from a commercial standpoint. (In any event, the movie was a huge hit in Spain.) And the tragic truth is that of the estimated 5,400 dead in Thailand (total fatalities for the region approached a staggering 230,000), nearly half were foreigners, most of them vacationing Europeans. The 523 Swedish dead alone represented the country’s worst loss since the Battle of Poltava in 1709.

Jose Haro/Summit Entertainment

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland as mother and son.

So this particular approach has context, and plenty of it. Yet “The Impossible” still plays unsettlingly like a tragedy visited only on wealthy white folks because the focus is so narrow and because Sergio G. Sánchez’s screenplay barely acknowledges other kinds of people’s suffering. There are Thai locals in the movie — pulling Maria to safety and getting her on a truck to the hospital, assisting Lucas when he briefly loses his mother, kindly overseeing the necessary surgeries and evacuations. They’re there. They’re just the Help.

The acting, it should be noted, is excellent, if in extremis. Watts believably travels from stressed competence (Maria’s a doctor) to a state shockingly near death, and McGregor has a scene involving a cellphone where you can see Henry’s stoic attempts to hold it together give way completely. The most striking performance, in the film’s most realized role, comes from Holland, whose character has to grow up in a matter of hours and — under prodding from Maria — reach out to assist others. Actually, the look on Lucas’s face as he discovers his own altruism may be the best special effect in the film. “The Impossible” is frustratingly myopic, but at least one of its protagonists learns to see.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
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