Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Film Pulse Score: 6.5/10
Everyone knows that December 26, 2004, was the infamous day when one of the world’s deadliest natural disasters occurred. Over 230,000 people died and many thousands more injured across 14 countries when a major undersea earthquake sent a killer tsunami toward countries in Southeast Asia. Director Juan Antonio Bayona tells us one family’s story of struggle and survival in the tsunami’s aftermath. It is not a bad film, but it is not a great one either. Perhaps that is because the event, like 9/11, Pearl Harbor, Pompeii, the Holocaust, and other infamous events, are simply beyond our ability to comprehend and take in to our consciousness in any truly meaningful way. At least Bayona and his terrific cast do their best, but their best probably would never be good enough.
We meet the Bennetts – Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) – and their three boys, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) as they arrive at a new luxury resort in Thailand. After 20 minutes or so of filmed fun-in-the-sun, the tsunami hits; it is one of the most incredible scenes I have witnessed in film in some time. We all saw it on television, but to see it dramatically recreated from a family’s point of view was startling. The family is split up, with Maria and the eldest, Lucas, struggling to keep hold of each other despite being tossed about like ragdolls in the sweeping water and dangerous debris which fills it. These are harrowing moments well-filmed and well-played by Watts and Holland. The film follows them for the first 40 minutes before ever showing us Henry and the other boys. Much of the film involves Maria’s injuries, her time in a makeshift hospital, Lucas’ looking after her, and Henry’s search for the rest of his family.
Naomi Watts has been receiving rave reviews even earning Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her work. As great of an actress as she is – see, for example, Mulholland Dr., 21 Grams, King Kong, and Eastern Promises – I would not place her on the short-list of 2012’s great performances (then again, there seem to be very few by actresses this year compared to some recent seasons). She does manage to realistically portray a physically battered woman who is more concerned for her son that for herself, just as we would expect any mother to be. McGregor and the two younger boys have less screen time and, save for their reunion with each other and Maria and Lucas, they do not have near as much to do as Watts and Holland. And it’s Holland as the eldest boy, Lucas, who steals this movie from the adult pros. Holland hits every note just right; he shows the requisite fear, strength, concern, initiative, and much more just when needed and with only the slightest and occasional prompting from his mother. He is the heart and soul of this true tale of survival in the face of ridiculous and, yes, “impossible” odds.
Ultimately, the story of survival and struggle is not something we haven’t seen before. And unfortunately, there is nothing too new or groundbreaking about how Bayona and his actors go about reproducing the tsunami and its aftermath. I do not know how I would have necessarily improved upon the film, but it did not resonate with me as much as I had expected it would. I can admit, however, that though I am not an easy-to-cry guy, there were a few moments when my eyes welled up at what I was witnessing and that is worth some kudos to the directing, writing, acting, cinematography, and production team that recreated this tragedy. It is an uplifting film, but it needs an uplifting of its own to be in a stronger category of filmmaking.
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