(2012) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Maura Etura, Geraldine Chaplin, Sonke Mohring, Ploy Jindachote, Johan Sundberg, Jan Roland Sundberg, Nicola Harrison . Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 was an event that captured the attention of the entire world. In little more than an instant the coastlines of Southeast Asia came flooding inland, taking with them debris and lives. More than 300,000 people lost their lives in one of the deadliest natural catastrophes of all time. Many of them were vacationers enjoying the sunshine for the holidays.
Henry (McGregor) and his wife Maria (Watts) – a doctor who has given up practicing medicine temporarily to raise her children – have checked into a beautiful Thai resort on the ocean. Their three children – the eldest, Lucas (Holland) who in the manner of kids approaching puberty basically doesn’t want anything to do with his family and tunes them out whenever possible with a pair of earbud headphones, the middle child Thomas (Joslin) who has a love for the heavens, and the youngest Simon (Pendergast) – are enjoying the sunshine of the pool and beach and the joy of Christmas presents.
Henry works in Japan and is concerned that someone has been hired to do his job, which may make him redundant. The family is considering moving home to England but that is a discussion for another day. The day after Christmas while the family is poolside, a gigantic wall of water taller than the roof of their resort rushes at them without warning. Henry is with his two youngest sons in the pool; Lucas is on the deck. Maria is by the glass wall of the pool deck. All are swept away in the frothing brown deluge.
Maria is bounced about in the raging tide like a rag doll. Tree branches and shards of glass slice into her and add a red hue to the brown waters. She manages to resurface and as the tide sweeps her away she sees Lucas and manages, after a good deal of trouble, to reunite with her son. The two huddle together as they wait miserably for the floodwaters to subside.
In the aftermath, all is silent. The two make for a tall tree they see towering over the landscape which has been flattened, like a petulant child had brushed everything off of a table with a careless sweep of his arm. Lucas sees a flap of skin hanging off his mother’s leg; she is grievously injured. They hear a child crying and Lucas is not inclined to rescue anybody, wanting to get his mother whose strength is rapidly fading, to a place as safe as possible should another wave hit the shore. After some gentle persuasion from his mom, they rescue a little Swedish toddler named Daniel (Johan Sundberg) and the three sit in a tree, awaiting rescue.
It eventually comes but there are no cars or transport in the area so Maria is dragged across the mud flats with Lucas clearing out debris ahead of the rescuers. The two are eventually taken from the small village they are brought to initially to a completely overwhelmed hospital in Phuket where it soon becomes apparent that Maria’s injuries are much more severe than it first appeared. Lucas becomes her guardian angel, but after Maria sends him off to help reunite people who had lost each other in the chaos, he returns to find her gone and a new person in her bed. It appears he is alone in the world.
But he’s not. Henry survived the disaster as well, and also found Thomas and Simon and is camping with them in the ruins of their resort. However, it is clear that the resort is uninhabitable plus the thread of further tsunamis caused by aftershocks make it imperative that the survivors be evacuated to higher ground. Henry reluctantly agrees to send his boys into the mountains but he cannot bring himself to leave until he has some idea of the fates of his wife and eldest son. He is assisted by the sympathetic Karl (Mohring) whose family was on the beach that day and whose survival is unlikely at best.
Scattered around Thailand, not knowing what has become of one another, this family must somehow find a way to get through the chaos and find each other, but will all of them survive? And how will they have changed if they do reunite?
The movie is based on the real experiences of a Spanish family which has been incomprehensibly switched to an English one; I supposed the producers thought that the movie would play better in English-speaking territories if the nationality was changed. I guess we all do what we have to do.
Fortunately this led to some superb casting. Watts in particular stands out here (and she has the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations to prove it). She spends much of the movie flat on her back in a hospital bed and undergoes privations that a lot of other actresses might handle with less forthrightness. There was a scene early on when she and Holland are trudging towards that tree when he points out to her that her tank top strap is ripped; her breast is hanging out and it is in none too good shape. She ties up her top and without much fanfare continues; the way Watts handles it is without self-consciousness. She has other things more important than modesty on her mind. Maria’s character is in full-on maternal mode and Watts captures it perfectly.
Holland has to shoulder much of the acting load; as his mother’s injuries grow in gravity, Lucas must grow up quickly and become her protector and advocate, all the while grieving for his dad and brothers with whom he had a fractious relationship at best. We watch a child grow into a man before our very eyes and it is quite moving.
McGregor gives a solid performance but is given not nearly as much to work with as Watts. Most of the time he’s showing despair and searching for his family while yelling their names in stubborn desperation. He does have one scene where he’s calling home to let them know he and the two youngest are okay and he’s searching for Maria and Lucas…he’s using a borrowed phone and he completely breaks down, all the stress and fear and pain overwhelming him. He finally hangs up, not willing to waste what little battery life is left on the phone – and the phone’s owner extends the phone to him gently, telling him he can’t leave off that call like that. It’s a powerful scene and if only McGregor were given more like it he’d probably have an Oscar nomination as well. But basically from that point, Da Queen was misty-eyed for the rest of the movie.
A word about the tsunami sequence itself; it’s impressive. Done with a combination of practical and computer generated effects, it is as harrowing a scene as you’re likely to see. It is one thing to watch home video of the tsunami hitting a resort made by a cell phone; it is quite another to see it like this where you get not only a sense of the size of the wave but of its power.
Some critics have complained that all the victims in the film seem to be white which isn’t true; if you watch carefully in the hospital and refugee sequences you’ll see plenty of Thai faces – the film is focusing on a single family which does happen to be European but then again the filmmakers are also European. I think most thinking filmgoers realize that there were more Asian victims in the tsunami than European ones.
This is a very emotional movie that is going to make every mom who sees it a wreck and a whole lot of dads as well. The experience is an incredible one and all the more so because it is real. I do hope that when the DVD is released we’ll get to hear from the actual family (a photo of them is shown during the end credits) because quite frankly I’m interested to hear how realistically the film depicted what happened to them. Nonetheless this is a movie worth looking for; it’s not on a lot of theater screens sadly, although Watts’ nomination for Best Actress might generate a little more interest. It deserves it.
REASONS TO GO: Powerfully emotional and brutal in places. Great performances from Watts, McGregor and Holland. Tsunami scenes are amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: Harrowing in places. Unnecessarily Anglicized.
FAMILY VALUES: The scene of the tsunami hitting the resort is extremely intense; there are also some graphic depictions of injuries incurred in the disaster. There are also several shots in which there is some nudity as people’s clothes were knocked literally off of their bodies in the deluge.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the extras were survivors of the actual tsunami.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The reviews are strongly favorable.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Krakatoa, East of Java
ASTRONOMY LOVERS: Young Thomas has an interest in the stars and there is an interlude where he and the Old Woman (Chaplin) discuss the death of stars while watching the night sky.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Woman