How do you make a film about kindness and decency without tipping into schmaltz? One way would be the approach taken by Juan Antonio Bayona and his writer Sergio G. Sánchez, who have based their story on the true events surrounding one family in Thailand during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed almost a quarter of a million people in eleven countries, principally Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as the real life doctor and her husband who, together with their three sons, are upgraded to a beachfront holiday villa at Christmas. When the wave hits they are around the pool, torn apart and flung inland. What follows is less about who will live or die and more to do with the boundless strength of family ties and the need for survival.
Eerie presentiments of the disaster abound. The director (who made the superbly directed ‘The Orphanage’) gives us the jitters from the outset as the arriving plane is buffeted by high winds, and loud noises make us start. But nothing prepares us for the force of the wave, which bone-shakingly blasts through the resort and seriously wounds Marie, the wife, leaving her oldest son (Tom Holland) in charge. Holland’s performance is athletic and affecting – it helped that he’d played Billy Elliot onstage, clearly – as he tries to find the other members of the family.
It’s at this point that the film is most interesting, when the son and mother have to decide whether to take care of themselves first or help other people. They choose the latter, and set about reuniting separated children and parents. There’s very little touchy-feely mysticism here – aside from a brief but moving scene with Geraldine Chaplin – because the film is about strength of character, and as such owes its cliche-free linearity to the fact that it’s a true story with the real family on board for regular consultation throughout its making.
The series of unfortunate coincidences that lead to the family members missing each other in the chaos of hospitals filled to their ceilings with the wounded feels entirely believable, the kind of thing that you only realise has happened when looking back over an event. There are no surprise twists, just a straightforward sensitive retelling of the days after the catastrophe, a testiment to human tenacity and innate goodness that makes you grateful you’re alive.
The Thai authorities appear to have sprung into action much more quickly than the ones in New Orleans after Katrina, but a disaster of this scale is still hard to comprehend. At the film’s Q&A afterwards Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts talked about the help they had from the incredible Channel 4 documentary, which pieced together the entire timeline by assembling phone footage from different continents to form a single linear narrative.