2015 marks the centenary of the fateful WWI Gallipoli campaign in which tens of thousands of ANZAC, British and countless more Turkish troops died during months of bitter attrition. The conflict is underrepresented on film, perhaps due to the humiliation of the Allied retreat which marked its conclusion, but it is the starting point for The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe’s directorial debut. The rugged, hirsute antipodean also takes the lead as Joshua Connor, father to three sons presumed killed during the conflict whom he travels from Australia to the Dardanelles to recover and bring home, a promise to a wife who succumbs to the grief of their assumed loss.
The crux of Crowe’s film lies in Connor’s quest to discover his sons’ fate but various tangents along the way, and some real clangers in the script by Andrews Knight and Anastasios, throw us off course, detracting from its emotional core. Upon arriving in Istanbul, the weary traveller sees his bag snatched by a rather dapper street urchin who leads him to a hotel. Said hotel is run by his mother, the widowed Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko). The pair begin an awkward romance over coffee in the morning and Ayshe reads Connor’s future in the bottom of an espresso cup. She actually does.
A later scene of all three at a spring (water = a theme) devolves into awful slow-mo as Crowe lays on the happy-family-in-the-making-despite-their-cultural-differences clichés with a shovel as big as the one he used to dig a well in our brief early excursion down under. Connor further uses the same water divining mysticism to locate his sons on the vast Gallipoli hillside – “How on God’s green earth did you know they’d be there?” asks Aussie Colonel Hughes (Jai Courtney). No explanation at all? It’s a real jump for a film where belief can only be suspended so far.
It is, however, refreshing that the commemorative film even-handedly recounts both Australian and Turkish viewpoints of events without banging the colonialist drum but does unfortunately relegate the British to caricatures of pompous, prissy bureaucrats, far more concerned with carving up the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles than facilitating his search. Brief shots of demonstrations, and a knees up in a bar with resistance fighters, allude to the early days of the Turkish War of Independence but it is not fleshed out to an extent where anything of historical note can be learnt.
Praise must be given to Yilmaz Erdogan as the vanquished Ottoman Major Hasan, who retains the humility and humanity to persuade Hughes to assist Connor in finding his boys. Erdogan wears the shame of defeat and the humiliation of assisting his former adversary like a heavy cloak and his understated performance is the standout of a mixed bag.
Another highpoint is Andrew Lesnie’s widescreen cinematography which is stunning. The Lord of the Rings cameraman brings a grandeur to the horror of the devastated landscape, the beauty of the beach and azur sea below, as well as Istanbul’s rooftops and breathtaking Blue Mosque. He makes watching the film worthwhile.
Mysticism, romance, historical context, a father’s quest, even a cricket lesson on a train – The Water Diviner has everything but tries to do too much and ends up falling a little short, the film’s conclusion not providing the exhilaration it could, and perhaps should, have done. Crowe’s performance in front of the camera remains stronger than that behind it, but he does show some signs of becoming a promising all-rounder in years to come.
The Water Diviner is released on DVD in the UK on 10th August.