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'The Impossible': Mother's angle softens tale's too-narrow focus ★★★

Everything that was false about the tsunami sequence in the recent Clint Eastwood film "Hereafter" — the bland overview perspectives, the lack of human immediacy — is corrected, terrifyingly, by the first half-hour of director J.A. Bayona's nerve-shredding docudrama "The Impossible."

In real life, the family was Spanish; in the film written by Sergio G. Sanchez, it's an Anglo family based in Japan but vacationing in Thailand, headed by a Scot, Ewan McGregor, and the British-Australian Naomi Watts. The suspense in the opening scenes, before the tsunami hits, is pretty awful. Then director Bayona (of the very fine and creepy "The Orphanage") makes the disaster itself no less so. (People have been known to leave, or pass out, during these scenes.)

With a mixture of practical and digital trickery, we experience the unthinkable in "The Impossible" firsthand. The moment of impact; the horrid rush of water; the sudden devastation and endless loss; the separation of parents and children, not knowing who's alive and who's dead.

Maria (Watts) and Henry (McGregor) embark on their separate stories of beating the odds, as they search for each other, and their three boys, amid a landscape of pure chaos. Bayona has a knack for complicated lines of action and for relying on Watts — a mighty photogenic sufferer, as well as a first-rate screen actress — throughout the ordeal.

There is, however, a limitation in "The Impossible." It's a good-news story, the sort of thing producers and, I suppose, audiences favor: fierce resolve in the face of grievous loss of life. Nearly 300,000 died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; this is not their story, not directly. But near the end, when the various winding paths of the core characters begin to intertwine, there are several moments depicting the miraculous endurance of the wealthy white characters, aided and abetted by transportation, health services, etc., that only money can buy. The nonwhite faces are relegated to the background, staring, mutely, impressed at their fortitude. And it all begins to feel a bit off.

Getting there, though, "The Impossible" is tough to resist. In a largely nonverbal performance, Watts conveys a world of motherly anguish and hurt and resolve. She's the heart of the film, and director Bayona knows it and frames the story accordingly.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The Impossible' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity)
Running time: 1:54
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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