Hundreds of thousands of people across South East Asia lost their lives in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. This Spanish co-production reduces the terror and horrific aftermath down to one family’s true-life tale of loss, struggle and survival.
In casting Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts (the latter up for Best Actress next month) the Spanish family becomes British, on holiday in Thailand from expat life in Japan. On arrival with their three young sons in the coastal village, your heart sinks as they are shown to their hotel – who could have imagined that the spectacular outlook from a beachfront bungalow would have such a downside?
The tsunami is horrifically spectacular in its rendering, dragging you deep into its nadir, while jaw-dropping overhead shots intermittently provide the context for what is sensibly a personal story.
The squeamish need not apply. With body horror to rival Cronenberg or ER, Watts (who owns the first part of the film with a stunning, gut-grabbing performance) is pummelled and thrashed about by Mother Nature. The excellent local cast bolsters the feeling of credibility, particularly moving in a scene where two elderly Thais wordlessly tend to Watts’ broken body, clothing her in their own blouse, as she is moved to tears of gratitude.
Some may find it all a tad mawkish, the soaring strings a bit much, but to be fair there is no other way of handling such material. Understated yet powerful performances save what could have turned into a hero piece, and instead leave us with a strong sense of what really matters.