THE WATER DIVINER found life thanks to one line in a century-old letter divined by Australian writer Andrew Anastasios, researching the 1915 battle of Gallipoli. An officer in the Imperial War Graves unit in post-war Turkey charged with trying to find and identify the fallen had footnoted “One old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son’s grave.” Anastasios and writing partner Andrew Knight turned the sad afterthought into a screenplay, then a successful book. Their effort caught the attention and heart of Russell Crowe, who then took on his first go at directing a feature film, this attractive and intriguing, flawed and frustating 2014 drama. He also starred in the lead.
1919. World War One is over, the slaughter at an end. An Australian farmer (Crowe, 50) has promised his sorrow-shattered wife that he’ll bring home the bodies of their three sons, lost in Turkey. A journey to Constantinople and then to the former battlefield at Gallipoli/Cannakale puts him up against a military commission that won’t cooperate. While a hotel guest in the city, in a place run by a European war-widow (Olga Kurylenko), his stubbornness and mission finds him aligning with a sympathetic Turkish officer (Yilmaz Erdogan), whose government is now co-operating with their former enemies to locate and properly bury the mingled, mangled dead. The various paths and purposes of these post-combat sufferers entwine, and understanding forms, even as Turkey engages a new conflict with Greece. *
I enjoyed the movie, with a few nags, while watching it, and applaud the effort, but reflection on the nag-bits undercuts the overambitious 111-minute mini-epic, which has enough extraneous material going on for a big-scale three-hour saga.
Get the good stuff out of the way first. Crowe’s always worth watching, he never gives less than his all. Kurylenko is sensuous and seductive. Popular Turkish star Erdogan–normally known for comedy– has a depth and gravitas that is considerable. The basic idea is thoughtful, the settings in Australia and Turkey are arresting, and there are a number of effective moments. Crowe gets a mighty assist from cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Babe, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and King Kong), who captures richly handsome images in striking color, including being able to shoot inside Istanbul’s magnificent Blue Mosque, the first time a film crew was given permission. CGI shots of a dust storm and the retreating Allied fleet are pretty cool. Trying to be even-handed with a historic enemy is certainly commendable and overdue, as former foe Turkey lost a host of brave men in the Gallipoli fiasco—ably defending against the daringly conceived but grotesquely executed invasion of their country. **
Then, there’s that sinking feeling…. Crowe’s heart was in the right place—born in New Zealand, living in Australia, the hardy ANZAC heritage courses in his veins. While he’s mainly on target with his cast, and along with his ace cameraman displays an eye to capture some telling atmosphere, he lets the tone and focus slip and slide with the unwieldy screenplay. Editing can be faulted as well, with a lack of background on the boys, too convenient meetups, questionable insertion of the Greek subplot, and a dubious series of wrapup material piled into the last act. The mystical stuff (the diviner’s ability to “find” extends beyond water) is shaky. The budding love story element, muted but obvious from the first time we see beautiful Kurylenko and her dadless son, is kept from going overboard, but it’s pretty unlikely. What the heck is that prostitute doing, prominently figured at the hotel run by the socially restricted widow and her straight-laced brother-in-law? The chase over the rooftop nonsense takes the movie into another vein of adventure that’s at emotional odds with the solemn quest backdrop. The final ‘escape-action-escape-discovery-escape-here we are’ sequences are contrived and rushed. With a bigger production, going whole-hog for three hours, maybe some of these awkward disparate pieces would jell better. From many quarters, the harshest criticism came from failing to mention the historical and horrible events that ran concurrent with the story’s setting and timeline—the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Turkey. More on that below. I enjoyed drinking in the film, but swallowing its mix of spirits carries a hangover.
Reviews were mixed, most lauding the cast and look, many faulting the diffused attention and that sprawling screenplay, for what it crammed in and what it left out. Budgeted at $22,500,000, with grosses coming to $38,200,000 worldwide, fully half of that total understandably amassed in Australia and Turkey.
With Cem Yilmaz (likable as a hearty sergeant to Erdogan), Jai Courtney, Ryan Corr, Dylan Georgiades, Daniel Wyllie (requisite snotty British officer, not very well done), Jacqueline McKenzie, Isabel Lucas (the jarringly out-of-milieu prostitute), and Steve Bastoni. Okay score is from David Hirschfelder. Sadly, just a week after the film opened, cameraman Lesnie died suddenly of a heart attack, just 59.
* One simple answer to why the Armenian and related terrors were left out is that this particular personal story is not about them, and securing co-operation from Turkey for the filming ensured that their government–which outlaws even discussing the slaughter the rest of the world acknowledges–would never have happened if that material was in the script. Still, a charge of being tone-deaf is fair enough. The Turkish massacre of their ethnic populations began on the very same day the Allies hit the beaches of Gallipoli, and continued throughout the war. The Armenian horror coincided with the less-discussed Greek one. Greece and Turkey then fought from 1919 to 1922. In the film, the Greeks–the only ones seen–are portrayed as brutes. We’ll include more info on the ANZAC story when we get around to talking about Peter Weir’s 1981 classic Gallipoli.
** Australia suffered 26,111 casualties at Gallipoli, 8,141 were fatalities. New Zealand took 7,991, 2,779 died. Those ANZAC figures fold into 392,856 total Allied casualties, of whom 130,842 were life-ending. Turkish-Arabic figures were not as scrupulously kept, but look to be around 250,000 complete, with 86,792 dead. Bitterness lingers to this day, with blame for the campaign stirring national pride and resentment among the great-grandchildren of the participants. You want an idea how the ruling classes and their supposedly educated politicians and brilliant generals—what today we call the 1%— view us common people? The answer: World War One.