Two sides of a family look to reunite amongst the chaos of one of the world’s devastating natural events.
It’s a common trait that the disaster movie genre suffers from focusing too much of its efforts on the huge spectacular catastrophe taking place, (usually to sell the movie), without focusing its effort on the characters and human story at the heart of it. Spanish director, Juan Antonio Bayona flips that stereotype on its head as he provides us with the first big feature film to touch on the events of December 26th 2004, with a story of triumph over adversity. Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter is the only other showpiece that touched on the disaster which cost the lives of an unprecedented amount of people, but for once we have a disaster flick in which you genuinely care about the well-being of our central characters.
As a family of five, headed by Maria and Henry (played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor), split apart by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in South East Asia, the story follows two sides of the family as they all look to reunite amongst the chaos and frantic aftermath of one of the world’s most devastating natural events.
Bayona’s direction is simply brilliant, incorporating sound design with rich effects; whether it be the unnerving, scary, roar of gushing water before a shot has even appeared on-screen, to the vast landscapes of a disaster hit Thailand. Playing everything with a realism, with characters talking with down-to-earth conversations any real family would have, and presenting everywhere as a paradise of immense beauty from the get go, not even acknowledging to the audience for one second of the impending peril our characters will find themselves in. It’s as though he’s trying to portray a notion that these people will be just as totally surprised as you will, despite knowing this tidal wave will indeed hit, adding to that sense of realism.
One of the subtle themes playing throughout is the sense of communities from different ethnic backgrounds helping one another when those around them are at their lowest, but also the physical inability to praise or even thank individuals for the smallest gestures that help them on the road to recovery. Some may read into that differently, but Bayona’s approach certainly seems to aim towards the real life situation being so dark, so disastrous, so shocking that your unable to truly appreciate the little things until your out the other end of your own darkest hour. One such moment is when Watts’ character is given a fresh shirt to wear from one of the native villages to a chorus of thank you’s that really tug on the heart-strings, and its done with real affection and weight.
Whilst Ewan McGregor is terrific, playing a doting father for the first time, coming to terms slowly with the frustration of his un-relentless quest to find his family, the real stand out is indeed Naomi Watts. Having to pick herself up from the ordeal of being completely helpless with the situation and knowing she has to put up with the aches and pains, as she plays the heartened mother desperate to recover her loved ones. Coming to terms with the fact of having to let her status in the family go… if they are all to survive the ordeal, very much giving a sense of when your lively-hood and life are essentially washed away – we’re all in this together regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. Young sixteen year old actor Tom Holland shines too as the eldest child, carrying the burden of keeping the family together when other outside interference and the unplanned chaos of the situation begin to get in the way.
For once, in a long time, its brilliant to see a movie in the disaster genre have this much heart, this much peril and deliver something so rich and artistically vibrant on-screen.