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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Impossible

Introduction The Impossible

The Impossible is a film about a British family caught up in the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, directed by Spanish film director J.A. Bayona and released in 2012. It is based on the true story of a Spanish family, the Alvarez Belóns, whose detailed account provided by María Belón Alvarez informed the making of the film at all stages. Bayona has described the process he chose to create the Tsunami scenes using digital effects and a huge water tank to replicate the moments of chaos after the wave hits the beach resort in order to make them as realistic as possible. He worked with real water surges to destroy miniatures of the resort, while Naomi Watts and Tom Holland, who play mother Maria and her son Lucas, filmed for five weeks in the tank for the turbulent underwater scenes. The film received much critical acclaim and prompted Simon Jenkins, a British survivor of the Tsunami from the same beach resort, to comment on its authenticity in a film blog entitled The Impossible is ‘beautifully accurate’  written for The Guardian in January 2013, in response to some criticism that the film didn’t focus on the majority of local victims.

The Film

The Impossible opens with the Bennett family on the plane to Thailand for Christmas.

When they arrive at the resort of Khao Lak they are mildly disappointed to discover that they have not been given the rooms that they had booked but then find that the replacement beachside suite is much to their satisfaction. After celebrating Christmas day with an exchange of presents there is no awareness of how significant one of those gifts, a red ball, will become in the events that follow. On Boxing Day, as the family are relaxing and playing by the poolside there is a sudden change of atmosphere and with almost no warning the scene is swamped by a ferocious wave. The devastation that follows is powerfully experienced by the viewer as mother Maria and her eldest son, Lucas are tossed around beneath the water like rag dolls. Maria is seriously wounded, but they manage to stay together and survive being swept inland. Lucas finds himself having to find the strength required to become his mother’s main support and with the help of some locals she is taken to a hospital nearby. As this story is told there is no indication of how the other family members have fared and the pain of not knowing is brilliantly recreated in the midst of the most extreme chaos that has been inflicted on the area. Then we see father Henry (played by Ewan McGregor) searching the wreckage of the beachside, calling for Maria and Lucas, until returning to the rubble of the hotel where his two young sons are waiting. The emotional pain of separation is palpable in all of the characters and at this stage neither family group knows whether the other is alive or dead. Henry then makes an agonisingly difficult decision to put his two youngest sons in the care of the authorities for evacuation to safety while he continues to search for Maria and Lucas in all of the surrounding hospitals.

The remaining suspenseful scenes show how the family are finally reunited at the hospital where Maria receives life saving treatment. The film ends as they are evacuated by plane to Singapore only then beginning to process the fact that they have survived where so many others did not.

Relevance to the Field of Mental Health

The Impossible provides the viewer with the vicarious experience of a sudden and serious life changing event that is an immediate threat to life, placing us, cinematically, under the Tsunami wave with Maria and Lucas. It also presents a powerful portrait of the emotional consequences of separation in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and provokes the viewer to question what they would do in such a situation. The harrowing portrait of survival against the odds offers an excellent opportunity to explore the psychological consequences that such traumas might cause in both the short and the long term. A good article to read alongside a viewing of the film is called Early mental health intervention after disasters by David A. Alexander, published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2005) 11:12-18. In it the author examines the factors that may play a part in determining the ability of survivors to cope with the impact of such events and notes that very few people display overt psychopathology in the immediate period after a disaster.

The Impossible is not a comfortable film to watch, although with the knowledge that it is based on true events, it is hugely compelling and involves a significant emotional commitment by the viewer. This is an important film for anyone working in mental health to see, especially for anyone who may work with people affected by sudden trauma or who have been caught up in a disaster.

• More information about The Impossible can be found at IMDB as can a short trailer.

The Impossible can be purchased from


• Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Joyce Almeida


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About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.

  You can now follow Minds on Film on Twitter @psychfilm