The Water Diviner (2014)

It was all but inevitable that some Australian filmmaker would make a significant motion picture to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, that great and terrible juncture of the national mythology. Russell Crowe was the man to try it, in spite of having only directed a handful of short films and music documentaries. The battle has already been famously inscribed in modern cinema with Peter Weir’s self-consciously mythical Gallipoli (1981), and also the New Zealand take Chunuk Bair (1992). Crowe’s feature debut tries for its part to be less an exploration of the war itself than of the effect it had on two cultures, both left bereft of their young men and wrestling for new identities. Crowe starts his film from the Turkish perspective, depicting Maj. Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan, excellent), a Turkish officer, leading his men on a charge across no-man’s-land only to find the allied trenches deserted and their ships vanishing across the sea, the moment of surprising victory for the battered defenders. Four years later, in the Australian outback, farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) plies his peculiar art of seeking out water sources with divining rods, and digs a well that successfully strikes water. Soon it emerges that Connor has lost three sons at Lone Pine during the Gallipoli Campaign, and his wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie), still in the eye of an intense and unremitting grief, recriminates him before drowning herself in the farm dam. 

Quietly infuriated by the local Catholic minister’s (Damon Herriman) bartering over giving her a decent burial, Connor packs up and heads to Turkey, determined to bring back the bodies of his sons and bury them alongside her. At Gallipoli, Lt. Col. Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney), an Aussie soldier and former civil engineer who fought in the battle, directs a team recovering the allied dead for proper burial in an Imperial war cemetery, working with Hasan, who has been assigned to help with his knowledge of the battlefield. When he first arrives in Istanbul, Connor is dogged by young Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), who snatches his suitcase and leads him on a merry chase, intent on making sure he stays at the hotel run by his mother Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her brother-in-law Omer (Steve Bastoni). Ayshe is initially wary of Connor, because her musician husband died at Gallipoli, although she still describes herself as married and hasn’t yet told Orhan his father’s dead; meanwhile Omer is pressuring her to marry him and adopt less Europeanised ways than his brother indulged. When Connor is faced with bureaucratic bars to reaching the battlefield, Ayshe advises him to circumvent the authorities simply by hiring a fishing boat to take him there by sea, depositing him on the coast where he dogs the exasperated but impressed soldiers to help his quest. But Hasan quits helping as tumult grips his assailed nation, with Turkish nationalism on the rise and directed at the occupying British, whilst Greek partisans are making war.

If noble intentions were art, The Water Diviner would be as great as it clearly wants to be. But they aren’t and it’s not. The Water Diviner has ambitions to being an act of cultural memorialisation and also revisionism, contemplating the battle not as ennobling crucible but as hellish zone of moral nullity, and taking seriously the Turkish side of the war, rarely contemplated in the official mythology of Gallipoli as held in Australia (largely depicted as an anonymous, almost abstract threat in Weir's film, for instance), for whom the ANZACs were an invading host whose efforts cost terrible death and destruction. Crowe’s film also wants to be a big, crowd-pleasing, old-fashioned epic tale of tribulation, searching, and reward. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; indeed, it’s the sort of conceit that many a great filmmaker of years past would have eagerly seized on. The film at least intelligibly frames the internal and external struggles of coming to terms with the war by contrasting the interior grief of an Aussie father with the political turmoil of Turkey in defeat, faced with radical revisions of outlook and place in the world. As one expects from an actor turned filmmaker, Crowe proves good at contouring performances. Crowe’s stock-in-trade as a performer has long been playing physically powerful men with a surprising intelligence they can’t always wield as effectively as their bodies, which he plies again here. He’s surest in depicting men and women trying to come to terms with their dualism, their pain and their life-spirit, and offering moments of low-key humanism, like a mildly stirring celebration of purpose and fellowship amidst Hasan’s Kemalist cadre witnessed by Connor with a blend of bemusement and delight.

Crowe refers back to his breakthrough performance in Romper Stomper (1992) by casting the very talented but less fortunate McKenzie, his co-star in that film, as Connor's ill-fated wife. The Water Diviner might also be regarded as an exploration of his own status as a wanderer in the world, ready to come home and rediscover a parochial faith. Crowe to his credit seems to have learnt lessons from some of the better directors he’s hung out with over the years. Early scenes call to mind Ridley Scott, visually in the clean yet lustrous expanses of his widescreen framing, and also in the thematic stresses, the cynical attitude towards social and religious pieties as well as the openness to the transformative energy of cross-cultural communication even in the midst of conflict, recalling Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Largely thanks to Andrew Lesnie’s excellent photography, Crowe plies some patches of strong cinematic beauty, with strikingly coloured and crisp visuals, alive to an essential visual thesis depicting characters caught between desire for the transcendent and the raw facts of earth and flesh. This concept is suggested in early shots of Crowe immersed in the water he releases from the red soil, and recur throughout in beatific flashes, as he wife wafts ghostly through his living room to kiss him before dying, in the sight of whirling dervishes in lucid shafts of light trying to catch bliss, paintbrushes daubing at decaying religious art, and even invested in the sight of Connor approaching the Gallipoli shore in a fishing boat and camping upon the beach, a star of fire on the land watched over by bemused but empathetic soldiers. 

Such hints of pseudo-mystical underpinnings are made uncomfortably concrete in the unfolding of this tale, as Connor’s mysterious gift with water evolves into a preternatural sense of certainty in the hunt for his missing boys. Crowe offers this angle without enlarging upon it all, without even a line to explain his personal understanding of such a gift, and although it gives the film his title, it remains a mere narrative convenience. Crowe wants to offer a vision of war that’s essentially tragic, climaxing a well-handled recollection of violent combat with the grotesque sight of the three bullet-riddled brothers lying together, one with his face blown off, one wheezing in animalistic pain for hours, and the third forced to lie helplessly listening. But Crowe quickly reveals this posture as specious, as he depicts brave and patriotic Turks battling sleazy Greek bandits, and making us cheer Connor as he takes sides. As arresting as fragments of the film are, Crowe more often reveals the shakiness of his neophyte touch, slipping between extremes of artfulness and incompetence. For every moment Crowe handles well, there’s two banalities, as he offers several patches of extremely muddled storytelling where rather simple plot developments are clumsily communicated. He segues in and out of flashbacks with jarring clumsiness. Crowe sadly shied away from making a simpler, more effective evocation of zones of flux between death and life-force, plying rather a storyline with far too much time for hackneyed story beats and cornball cues, sabotaging his better labours. 

The chief problem here is the script, by TV writers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, which is broad and facetious when it’s not being a mass of pasted-together clichés. Too many scenes are transmitted from something else, and the storyline predictable in a manner that belongs less the fatefulness of myth than the convenience of formula. From the moment Connor meets Ayshe there can only be one end, occasionally recalling a drizzly remake of Crowe’s romance with Marion Cotillard in A Good Year (2006) of all things, mixed with one of those thorny cross-cultural courtships like in Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss… (2004) where there will be inevitable clashes with forbidding relatives and angry miscommunication to delay the plot. Crowe, Knight, and Anastasios toss every piece of emotional furniture, from Ayshe’s snippy denial of her husband’s death to Omer’s desire to marry her, and the compulsory “You know nothing!” speech all interloper heroes must suffer through, to keep the romantic longing frustrated long enough. The budding of a new family unit of Connor, Ayesha, and Orhan is signalled when they splash water on each-other. No kidding. The script disposes of the potential cultural tangle inherent in Connor’s stumbling between Ayesha and Omer by having Omer prove to be a sleazy creep who beats up Ayesha and tells Orhan about his father’s fate in the war out of spite. And don’t even ask me what the hell’s supposed to be going on with the resident hooker (Isabel Lucas) in Ayshe’s hotel, whose immoral profession apparently does not disturb anyone amidst all the concern about propriety: indeed, eventually she's seen working the front desk.

The film also notably subverts its own initial purpose by having the presumption that all three of Connor’s sons died at Lone Pine prove misleading; thus we shift from a portrait of a man trying to come to terms with unbearable loss to a more traditional saga of hope and redemption. Connor eventually learns one of his boys, Arthur (Ryan Corr), survived and was taken to a POW camp, but seems to have vanished in the interim. We get little portrait of Connor’s sons, apart from some short, musty, confusing cuts to scenes of Connor reading Arabian Nights to them as small boys, or rescuing them from a billowing sandstorm, and a vignette of Connor extracting a promise from Arthur to bring his brothers home. Arthur’s apparent gift for art proves to be a significant plot element, but this isn’t mentioned until it's necessary for a late story pivot. Crowe prefers to waste time caricaturing the few British officers present in the film in manner that evokes the cheesy, manipulative side of many Australian New Wave films that sought to indict British use of Aussies as cannon fodder. He uses Capt. Brindley (Dan Wyllie) as a petty bad guy who sees a need to send armed soldiers to make sure a harmless civilian leaves Turkey, for no better reason than to give the narrative a bit of tension, no matter how illogical or unnecessary. Connor initially tries to attack Hasan after the skeleton of one of his sons is found with a bullet hole that suggests execution. This spasm of truly messy, raw emotion is quickly quelled – far too quickly – and instead Connor and Hasan develop an amity at first wary and then strong. 

Connor becomes privy to the movement burgeoning in support of Mustafa Kemal in the midst of war with the Greeks, and eventually hitches a ride with Hasan, his loyal sergeant Jemal (Cem Yılmaz), and his soldiers on a train as they travel to battle raiding Greek partisans, on the hunt for Arthur. All of this pushes probability a little too far, portraying forgiveness and new fellowship glibly and straining to work in some third act action. This pays off in an excruciatingly silly scene where Connor proves to have packed his cricket bat, for absolutely no purpose of logic other than so Crowe can stage a feel-good interlude with Connor teaching Turks how to play. Crowe then goes one better by having Connor save Hasan and Jemal by sneaking up and clubbing their Greek captors with the bat. The Water Diviner here almost descends to the level of cripplingly foolish audience-pandering reached by Baz Luhrmann’s not so dissimilar take on Aussie mythology, Australia (2008). And let’s not look too deeply at the film’s concept of the period politics – the appearance of a swaggering Greek partisan commander as last-minute villain would be funny if didn’t touch on some agonising history for the sake of cheap melodrama. That the film remains watchable can be put down to the professionalism of the cast, the arresting qualities in Lesnie’s photography, and Crowe's ability to sustain a note of seriousness in spite of all.

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