Director Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Impossible" aims to tell one family's story of struggle and survival after the disastrous Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The film's surefire awards season sweetheart Naomi Watts has called the adaptation a "blow-by-blow" representation of her real-life counterpart's journey.
Faithful though the film may be in portraying the heart and humanity of the experience, screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez has admitted to at least "bringing the story down a few notches because there were some moments in the real story that were so incredible that it's, like, 'Nobody will believe this.'" We're here to ferret out those absolute truths and the stretches presented in "The Impossible."
1. The Family
The real-life Belon family — Maria, Enrique and their three sons Lucas, Tomas and Simon — are Spanish, but on-screen they are portrayed by British actors Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast. As a result, there are three name changes involved: Enrique to Henry, Tomas to Thomas and Belon to Bennett.
Maria Belon herself, who was charged by her family with ensuring protection of her family's story during production, was not bothered by the fact the script was re-written in English — repeatedly justified by financing and audience concerns — nor that U.K. actors were cast. In fact, she recounted instructing Bayona, "[T]his is not about [an] English family, Swedish family, German family, Thailand family ... [T]his is about human beings living a painful situation."
Also worth mention is the fact that while Watts and Holland spent time meeting and repeatedly consulting their real-life counterparts for intricate detail preparation, McGregor did not personally encounter Enrique until the cameras were already rolling. Still, following the Toronto International Film Festival's successful screening, where the Belon family made a surprise appearance before the crowd, the real-life father praised McGregor's performance, saying "He's got me, he's got me. How did he ever know? He never met me."
2. The Big Wave
On Dec. 26, 2004, the Belon family lounged by the pool at their Phuket, Thailand, holiday vacation resort as Maria casually read "The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Enrique played with Simon and Tomas in the pool, and Lucas played with a ball on the deck. As told by Maria, the group then "heard the sound of this monster coming" but couldn't identify the source. "When I saw the big wall, the big black wall coming, I thought 'Okay, that is coming for us.'" That wall, of course, was the enormous dark tidal wave that ripped the area apart and claimed nearly a quarter million lives across fourteen separate nations.
Production on "The Impossible" aimed to recreate this moment with precise attention to detail on-screen. "It was important because we were there where it really happened, and to the point that we were standing in the same positions around the same swimming pool where the families were standing that day," said Ewan McGregor. "It was really real, and the director made all of our sets feel very real." Although Maria Belon has said she didn't recognize the looming threat of the noise as quickly as it appears in the movie moment, most of other details are considered spot-on for the critical scene.
3. The Hospital
For much of the film, as in reality, the badly injured Maria and her eldest son Lucas were separated from the other three members of their family as she recovered in a hospital. As with the resort scene, filmmakers used the original locations for production and even incorporated tsunami survivors as extras. "They were so proud that we were filming there," said Belon of the hospital and its staff. "I think they are proud we are telling the story of what happened there, of the reality of what we saw in the hospital. The art department was doing such an amazing job that everybody thought 'This is a deja vu, this has been here years ago.'"
4. The End
Obviously, the moment that defied all odds for the Belon family was when they found each other at long last, by chance. Cinematically, Bayona claims it played out just the same. "Totally coincidental," he said of their reunion. "It really was at the entrance in the lobby. They embraced and remember it as the happiest moment of their lives."
Maria's harrowing firsthand account of the events can be listened to (in Spanish) here.