By Mike Shawcross
This review may contain spoilers.
Films depicting real natural catastrophes can be very hit or miss, and mostly they miss. Hollywood disaster movies often descend into melodrama and over-produced stylised action to raise the tension, and flesh out their simple survival plots. When these events are as recent as the tsunami of 2004, which cost the lives of over 200,000 people, and the images are still so vivid in our memories due to the large scale media coverage, is a film what we really need?
Maybe not, but the fact that this is a Spanish film with Juan Antonio Bayona (director of The Orphanage) in charge gave me some hope that the tragic events might be told in a more honest way. It also bodes well that Bayona decided not to specify the nationalities of the main characters, so as to create a universal film in which nationalities were irrelevant to the plot. I can understand the reasoning in casting an English-speaking cast, as if this had been a subtitled film a vast majority of people wouldn’t have bothered to see it. Of course this would lead to the inevitable American remake and the overproduction of the disaster.
Bayona centres his film on one family; a happy, normal family. If there are any tensions we are unaware of them; this isn’t a film about reconciliation or forgiveness. This is a simple story of survival, courage and hope against the odds that the members of the family are still alive. The fact that the film keeps them central throughout makes it work even more for me. This is their story, their ordeal. It makes no difference that they are not locals, or even that they are Westerners; at the end of the day they were still part of this disaster. They were just lucky enough to survive it.
Maybe that’s why Bayona wanted to take this family’s story, because it is remarkable and it is worthy of being told. I think the director has done an excellent job. It’s an extremely sensitive subject and will invoke quite a few negative feelings and naysayers. I have no idea how survivors will react to it either, but I hope some commend Bayona for his efforts. The scenes of the Tsunami hitting the resort and the aftermath are extremely powerful. I really got an understanding of the force of the water, the speed the wave was travelling, and how helpless people would have been as it hit the land. The aftermath was devastating to look at as well, as Bayona shows us graphic scenes of the victims and the harrowing distress of the survivors from the family’s view point.
Naomi Watts (Maria) in a physical demanding role really delivers. Her emotion never seems false, and she is just superb. Her scenes in the wave are excellent; and we can really see the fear in her eyes. Alongside her, Tom Holland (Lucas) as the eldest son gives a solid performance for such a young actor. This is also the best I’ve seen McGregor (Henry) recently (he was ok in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but here he really impresses). The score is quite simply beautiful, with pieces of music composed by Fernando Velzquez whose previous works include The Orphanage and Julia’s Eyes. He’s also composed the score for the forthcoming Mama, which is released in February.
My final thoughts are about the emotional connection I had with the story. I’m a family man with three kids, and maybe that’s why I was so emotionally moved by this film. That said, I suspect I would still have been moved by this tragedy if I was single. This is an uneasy watch about a disaster of massive proportions, but it is ultimately a powerful and uplifting story.