Despite its flaws ‘The Water Diviner’ is a beautiful and moving movieEntertainment News, Movie Review, Section 4A Thursday, April 23rd, 2015
The 100th anniversary of World War I is passing by in the United States quietly mostly because, I suspect, how little the United States suffered during that war, compared to Europe and its colonies. Around 17 million soldiers and civilians died during the war’s four years; it wiped away huge swaths of the British, French, German, Italian, Russian and Turkish population, and its terrible legacy laid the groundwork for the even worse World War II. Among the many disastrous, ultimately pointless, battles was Gallipoli, where a combined force of French and British Commonwealth soldiers tried to wrest control of a key peninsula in what is now Turkey. Each had about 250,000 casualties.
The deaths of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand are credited with giving rise to those nations’ nationalist consciousness, the holiday marking the beginning of the battle is much more important than Remembrance Day, their version of Memorial Day. To them, Gallipoli is something like Iwo Jima or Gettysburg are to Americans. Peter Weir’s 1981 epic Gallipoli is the definitive filmic adaptation, and in his first film as a director Russell Crowe wanted to make something as momentous, to make an Australian Saving Private Ryan. To say that he fails is not surprising, but that doesn’t mean The Water Diviner is worthless, because it’s actually beautiful and moving, if very flawed.
Based on a true story, The Water Diviner follows Conner (Russell Crowe), a western Australian rancher, on his quest to find the bodies of his three sons who were all killed on the same day on Gallipoli. Grief led to Connor’s wife’s suicide and to his constant sorrow, he feels a moral duty to bury his sons next to his wife in Australia. It is four years after the battle, shortly after the Allied forces won the war and are now in the process of partitioning the now defunct Ottoman Empire. Istanbul is chaotic, and the British don’t want Connor there. His gorgeous widowed hotelkeeper Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) tells him to pay a fisherman to take him to Gallipoli, and he goes. The lieutenant in charge of exhuming the bodies (Jai Courtney) reluctantly lets Connor stay and look: “Because he is the only father who came looking.” Also there are cowed, but honorable Turkish officers, including a very sympathetic Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan). Using the same rather miraculous skills he uses to find water in the dusty Australian outback, Connor finds where his sons died. They only find two bodies, however, and after the British refuse to help him find the third, Connor enlists Hasan, who has recently joined the Turkish nationalist resistance.
There’s a lot of plot in The Water Diviner and it seems the result of wanting to include everything the screenwriters learned while doing research for the film, from Middle Eastern politics to Ottoman gender roles. The central plot, that of Connor’s need to make his family whole, is extremely compelling, but Hasan’s role in the burgeoning Turkish nation seems like a subplot tacked on mostly to create action scenes. Connor’s courtship of Ayshe is sweet, if unrealistic, and their scenes are as clichéd as anything in the film’s entirely too familiar third act.
It’s hard to fault the filmmakers’ desire to create a story about the sorrow of war that also reconciles nations and families destroyed by a meaningless war. That is something I can laud, and it makes up for Crowe’s ham-fisted direction. That said, he is great directing himself as a sad, determined, deeply kind man. And he was very smart to hire the Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie; the film is stunningly beautiful, from its bleak landscapes to its disturbing battle scenes.
The Water Diviner
Directed by Russell Crowe
Written by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios
Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko and Yilmaz Erdogan
Opens April 24 at your local multiplex
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