It hardly seems possible that it is eight years since the tsunami on Boxing Day of 2004 that ravaged the coastline of South-East Asia.
This film is based on the account of one family caught in the disaster when on holiday. Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) plays a soft line in suspense and, if it is seen in the cinema, a sonorous assault on the eardrums with some fine sound mixing.
The images are well-known to any who watched the news at the time; a swollen, muddy torrent of beach-front flotsam and jetsam swirling around first-floor balconies, trees and streetlamps. In wide shots the scene is convincingly recreated to make the unbelievable scale of the disaster believable once more.
Bayona establishes a scattering of character traits in the opening scene as the family fly into Thailand. The father, Henry (Ewan McGregor), is a worrier
plagued by the thought that he has not set the burglar alarm before leaving. His wife, Maria (Naomi Watts) is pragmatic in the face of his anxiety, but is terrified of the minor rumbles of turbulence as they come into land. The eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland) in his early teens, is unsympathetic to this and the neediness of one of his much younger brothers.
It’s expected that what follows will challenge these aspects of their characters, but really, any character arc is dropped in a film in which we vicariously experience a purgatory state of raw emotion as the characters stagger through the wreckage in an attempt to find other family members and a source of help. As an exercise in “What would you have done?” a good job is made of what must be beyond true comprehension.
The younger actors should not go unnoticed. Samuel Joslin holds his brief scenes well as the middle brother Thomas, in charge of the youngest Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) when on their own, and evokes that sense of a child calmly imitating the mantle of an adult in the most unusual of times.
Holland guides the audience for a good deal of the film, though he is more action than revealing emotion. The many shots of him running errands through hospital corridors reminded me of another disaster film, of sorts, that featured a boy lost in the tumult of a Far-Eastern setting: Christian Bale in The Empire of the Sun. Holland didn’t get as much time as Bale to show his acting chops, but I’m curious to see what he does next.
The sound effects of muffled rushing water and muted underwater collisions is a great aid to the tension in the action sequences, but tinkling piano notes grate slightly in scenes where silence would have emoted well enough; given the circumstances and the naturalistic performances given by McGregor and Watts. As in The Orphanage, Bayona builds tension gradually then breaks it with such unexpected empathy that, at one point, I sat in silence as a tear rolled down my cheek. This is not a film of great character analyses, but is certainly one that gives thought for being alive.