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Viewer Guide: “The Impossible” and “Chronic”

March 15, 2022 | Richard Peña


The Impossible (2012).

This week’s double feature starts with the 2012 disaster drama The Impossible, a Spanish co-production directed by Juan Antonio Bayona.   

Inspired by actual events, The Impossible offers a riveting account of one family’s harrowing experience during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed the lives of nearly 228,000 people in 14 countries. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as Maria and Henry Bennett, an upwardly mobile couple living in Japan who travel to Thailand for a Christmas holiday with their three young sons. The family’s luxurious vacation at a four-star beachside resort proves to be short lived when a massive undersea earthquake strikes on December 26th, triggering enormous 100-foot-high waves that obliterate everything in their path. Emerging from the roiling water, amazingly Maria is able to locate her oldest son Lucas, portrayed in a compelling performance by a 14-year-old Tom Holland in his movie debut. Clinging together as they struggle to make their way to higher ground, Maria discovers her leg has been badly injured; as a doctor herself, she is able to improvise emergency treatment, but also realizes she must receive real medical attention as soon as possible. With no idea if Henry or her other two sons have survived, Maria and Lucas attempt to do the impossible in a surreal new world of utter destruction.  

The Impossible was inspired by the story of Spanish doctor María Belón, who was vacationing with her husband and three sons when the tsunami hit. The film was shot on locations in Spain and Thailand, with director Juan Antonio Bayona opting not to use digital effects for the amazing tsunami sequences, which were created with elaborate large-scale miniatures in an outdoor water tank. For closer shots, giant dumpers filled with over a thousand gallons of water were used to create the effect. The scenes of devastation in the tsunami’s aftermath were also filmed in a giant outdoor tank, with the actors positioned inside underwater wagons on rails for their safety, as well as to control their speed. A global box office success, The Impossible was also honored with a long list of international awards, and Naomi Watts received her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for her riveting performance. The Impossible also marked the movie debut of Tom Holland, who was just 14 at the time of production. Holland began his acting career as a replacement Billy Elliott in the West End production of the musical. In 2017, Holland’s career was transformed once again when he entered the Marvel comics universe as an authentically youthful Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming. 


Chronic (2015).

This week’s double feature continues with Chronic, a 2015 drama directed by Michel Franco.  

Providing an unblinking look at a tough subject, Chronic stars Tim Roth as David, a home care nurse doing the difficult work of assisting seriously ill patients who are sometimes nearing the end of life. Helping the sick and disabled with the simple tasks that they are no longer capable of doing—or filling in for absent family members who have abdicated responsibility—David perseveres with a stoic dedication that’s compassionate and admirable…yet also mysterious, becoming close enough with some patients to attend their funerals, while avoiding any true personal connection. Gradually, David’s service almost begins to seem like a form of penance, especially as we learn more about his failed marriage, his semi-estranged adult daughter—and a son, whose memory leads David to confront one of the most difficult ethical issues in the medical profession.  

Mexican writer-director Michel Franco received his inspiration for Chronic from observing his grandmother’s interactions with her caregivers during her final decline. Tim Roth approached Franco about working together after seeing Franco’s acclaimed earlier film After Lucia at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. To prepare for his performance, Roth trained with professional nurses to determine how to approach his character, as well as how to convincingly portray the physically demanding work of hospice care. None of the actors were actually patients, although British actress Rachel Pickup undertook a dramatic weight loss to effectively play Sarah, the AIDS patient David is caring for at the start of the film. Michael Cristofer, who plays the senior stroke patient, is also a playwright and screenwriter; Cristofer’s 1977 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Shadow Box had in fact dramatized the stories of three terminally ill patients. Chronic was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and was honored with the Festival’s Best Screenplay Award that year.   

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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