Fiction and reality clash uncomfortably in “Tsunami, the Aftermath,” a beautifully performed but ultimately unsatisfying drama inspired by the horrifying events of Christmas 2004. Using interviews with survivors to create wholly fictional characters and story arcs, the conceit of a disaster movie loosely predicated on fact blunts the emotional impact, as does a heavy-handed message regarding greedy exploitation of the Third World. There is power here in how people deal with loss — especially that of a child — and seek closure, but a tedious second half leaves this HBO-BBC collaboration grasping for higher ground that it never reaches.
Writer-producer Abi Morgan’s story features several interlocking plots set in motion when a vast wave brutally strafes the coast of Thailand, destroying a mix of luxury resorts and humble fishing villages. Among the vacationers is Ian (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who, in wrenching closeup, loses hold of his young daughter as the water thrashes them about, while his wife (Sophie Okonedo) is off on a scuba-diving excursion.
Separated from his family, Ian’s odyssey periodically brushes against that of Kim (Gina McKee), another tourist whose husband is killed and son terribly injured; and Than (Samrit Machielsen), a Thai waiter whose village is torn all to hell. Meanwhile, visitors and locals are left to hunt for missing loved ones, overwhelming a top British official (Hugh Bonneville), who is chided for his unresponsiveness by a too-good-to-be-true aid worker (Toni Collette).
Finally, there is Nick (Tim Roth), a cynical journalist who begins investigating the lack of an early-warning system as well as the almost-immediate land grab that ensues. Nick questions, among others, a representative of a major hotel chain (Kate Ashfield) dispatched to help cope with the fallout.
It’s easy to see why Morgan and director Bharat Nalluri chose to structure the movie in this fashion, attempting to put human faces on a tragedy of almost incomprehensible magnitude. Nevertheless, actual stories have more power than fictional ones, even if the goal is to achieve a larger truth.
Stripped of that sense of reality, the ongoing thread of Ian’s guilt and his wife’s concurrent grief and temptation to blame him ultimately feels predictable, as do the heavies unearthed by Nick’s evaporating cynicism and muckraking. A recurrent theme, in fact, is the survivors’ anger toward the local government and British reps, which feels more like lashing out than a legitimate grievance, given the scope of what has transpired, and with the fate of so many unknown, as relief workers take DNA swabs and sift through piles of bodies.
Both Ejiofor and Okonedo deliver moving performances, though they operate in such an unremitting state of anguish that the drama inevitably drags in part two.
Alex Heffes, too, deserves credit for his moving score, though as with the actors, the narrative limits him to a rather narrow range of notes.
Shot in Thailand, the production makes good use of the locations, and the wave itself is effectively if fleetingly captured. Not so, alas, for the arbitrary toll left in its wake.