May 14, 2015

The Water Diviner

There is scenic beauty to spare in Russell Crowe’s flawed but touching The Water Diviner. The film—apparently based on fact, however loosely—traces the journey of an Australian farmer named Joshua Connor in 1919 to Gallipoli. Connor is trying to recover the bodies of his three sons, all of whom were part of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and were (to the best of his knowledge) killed together in battle (during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign which left thousands of troops dead on both sides). Crowe also directed the film, with a surprisingly subtle hand, particularly in crafting battle scenes and in showcasing the landscape that situates his story, be it the austere terrain of the Australian desert or the sumptuous blues and greens of the Mediterranean and Turkey. Crowe’s light touch doesn’t always work for the film: there are moments when it feels lacking in emotional weight, despite the compelling elements of the story which would seem to defer such weight almost as a matter of course.

My knowledge of World War I is fairly limited, and my knowledge of the skirmish at Gallipoli and its aftermath even more so. But even I felt more than a little skeptical about some of the cultural and political aspects of The Water Diviner. Somehow, Crowe’s film feels too blissfully easy in its understanding of cultural divides. Crowe’s good-natured, politically neutral farmer, Joshua Connor, begins his search in Istanbul, and when he arrives, an eager young boy nabs his luggage and lures him to the out-of-the-way hotel run by his widowed mother Ayshe (played by Olga Kurylenko). Naturally, she’s put off by Joshua Connor, since he represents the Anglo enemies who slaughtered so many of her own people (including her husband, although she refuses to admit his death because it might obligate her to marry his brother, a calculating, somewhat sleazy man). Nevertheless, a fragile kinship—and romance—is obviously in the works. And even though the film ultimately leaves this development open to interpretation, its inclusion feels more than a bit precious, like a Hallmark movie found its way into an otherwise tough-minded film about the tragedy of war.

I appreciate that The Water Diviner is ultimately proclaiming a message of togetherness. The characters in this film have felt the torrent of war in the most direct and painful ways imaginable. But a movie that so conveniently unites two warring cultures by contriving a romance between two people from those cultures, feels a bit calculated, like finely processed treacly Hollywood goo. It goes down so easy. But there’s also a romanticized portrait of the Turks which left me feeling skeptical about the film’s historical insight.

And yet, this movie is likable and effective and refreshingly subtle in so many ways. Crowe’s depiction of conflict is one of the most understated we’ve seen in Western movies of the last decade. We see flashes of the battle Connor’s sons fought in Gallipoli, all of them technically pretty dazzling and viewer-friendly. We can tell what is happening in the action, and the sounds of the guns feel loud in that antiquated way, not like computerized modern recreations. The battles are also not drawn out: they’re more like flecks of memory, only Connor doesn’t remember them; he’s imagining them, or we’re getting them as a kind of dreamlike retroactive vision. They are well-staged, efficient, powerful, and haunting.

And to his credit, Russell Crowe doesn’t try to milk the audience or give himself blustering actor-y moments. His character—obviously grief-stricken not just by the loss of all three of his sons but the recent suicide of his wife—is broken. He’s been stripped of the things that we’ve been told are being protected by aggressive military force. The Great War for him isn’t a roar of victory; it’s a wail of personal loss. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the film, we see Joshua Connor’s sons, all of them apparently mortally wounded, one in particular issuing a guttural moan that goes on for hours; his brother, the least wounded of the three (the third is already dead) cries out, knowing he can do nothing to save his brothers or himself, and feeling the weight of this great tragedy in a very literal sense as he lies under the broken bodies of his brothers.

That’s a powerful image. There are many of them in The Water Diviner. And yet, these images are marred somewhat by the film’s cheap satisfaction. Perhaps this is a result of what feels like rushed storytelling. I’ve never been one to complain about a movie being too short, but are moments in The Water Diviner that feel clumsily staged as though the filmmakers were in a hurry and didn’t have the finesse to dramatize what they wanted in the right way. This is surely—at least in part—the mark of a first-time director. Crowe makes up for these oversights by his willingness to soak in the surroundings of the many places Connor travels.

And even though the film feels at times like a cultural field trip conducted by an overly optimistic and more than slightly misinformed guide, its intentions are admirable. To his credit, Crowe does make an effort to depict the complexities at work between the two cultures at the heart of the film: the Anglos and the Ottomans. Connor is aided more than once by a Turkish military officer (Yilmaz Erdogan)—who’s been enlisted by Australian military officials to help them recover their dead soldiers, because he’s familiar with the landscape and the trajectory of the battles. But this is part of the problem: the film feels na├»ve in its forced togetherness. The actors lend some credibility to problematically noble intentions. And I can’t overstate my gratitude for a movie about war that makes an effort to be subtle and thoughtful and relatively light on explosions (for a summer movie).

With Jai Courtney, Ryan Corr, Dylan Georgiades, Jacqueline McKenzie, James Fraser, and Ben O’Toole. 

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