This film, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) and based on the real-life experiences of a Spanish family (British, in this film) caught in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, rarely lets up the pace. We’re introduced to Henry (McGregor) and Maria Bennet (Watts) as their flight is about to touch down in Thailand. There’s some domestic tittle-tattle about their kids and whether they remembered to set the security alarm as they left the house, but it all boils down to ‘we love our kids, we love each other, everything is great and this narrative requires you to love us too’. Fine. Absolutely necessary, but easily the weakest part of the film: it feels contrived, the dialogue is clunky and McGregor and Watts seem uneasy with each other. From here though, it’s hard to remember a film in which I have felt so emotionally overwhelmed that I considered, at one point, leaving the auditorium for air.
Perhaps the film’s impact is enhanced considerably depending on whether you have children or not. Much of the narrative centres around the separation of the family and their attempts to find each other in the aftermath of this nightmarish event. What the filmmakers get absolutely right is the sheer physical force of the tsunami’s arrival and the all-encompassing hopelessness that follows. The moments before the wave hits are meticulously recreated, with early signs like loss of electricity, birds fleeing overhead and finally the view of distant trees being uprooted as the devastating wall of water approaches.
It is sometimes hard to watch as the characters are severely and relentlessly battered under the weight and speed of the water. This is largely due to the flawless effects, which look absolutely authentic in their scope and brutality, favouring miniatures and practical water effects over digital FX (but employing a mixture of these techniques). In this, Bayona and his team must be saluted, because it was likely a hard sell for insurers and financiers – but the work pays off tenfold, resulting in a tough realism that no doubt informs the performances and the emotional clout of the entire film. See this, and then go and hug your kids.