It was with a fair amount of trepidation that I approached Russell Crowe’s newest project and first as director, the historical war drama The Water Diviner. This wasn’t because of any particular aversion to his previous work as an actor, but rather his decision to focus on such a major event in the national consciousness of Australia, New Zealand and Turkey: the Gallipoli Campaign. Tackling such a contentious moment in history would inevitably mean at least on some level entering into a conversation about what that horrific battle represents today and how it is remembered not just here in Australia but on the other side of the world as well. The release of the film just months before the 100th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli undoubtedly raises the stakes.1 This was a big ask for any director, let alone a first-timer, and the results are mixed at best, though not without a few surprises.
The majority of the action takes place in 1919, four years after the Allied landing in the Dardanelles. Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe in the lead role), a farmer living in northwestern Victoria, is the father of three young sons who fought with ANZAC forces in Gallipoli and are presumed to have died in battle after being reported missing in action. He and his wife (played by Jacqueline Mackenzie) are stricken with grief at the absence of their children, and particularly by the fact that they can’t give them a burial on consecrated ground. Driven by remorse, Crowe’s character takes the long voyage to Gallipoli, where he will attempt to find and bring home his sons’ bodies.
What is perhaps most surprising about The Water Diviner is the breadth of its scope, both in terms of the geographical area it covers as well as the historical events that function as a backdrop to the overarching narrative. Apart from the opening sequences in rural Australia, the rest of the film is set in various parts of Turkey (Constantinople, Gallipoli, parts of Anatolia) and coincides with several key moments in Turkish history. Through his travels, our protagonist encounters the tumultuous changes sweeping through the country in the wake of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the territorial disputes that followed in the Turkish War of Independence. 2
Interestingly enough, then, much of the film focuses on how Joshua Connor manages to negotiate his position as an outsider in Turkey – unversed as he is in cultural history and custom – in order to achieve his goal of locating his sons’ final resting place. Upon arriving in Istanbul, Connor’s encounters with the local people are predictably strained, the memories of the Gallipoli campaign as well as the partitioning of Turkish land by the Allies still fresh in their minds. At first he is depicted as a well-intentioned but insensitive foreigner, his stay in a downtown hotel marked by his inability to engage with local custom without offending despite his best efforts. Slowly however he develops connections, first via a somewhat mawkish friendship with the hotelier’s young boy – based mostly on rough hair-tussling, and “she’ll-be-right” winks – and later a romance with the hotelier herself (Olga Kurylenko). Later, our protagonist warily develops a friendship with the Gallipoli veteran Major Hassan (Yılmaz Erdoğan) in spite of his key role in driving away the ANZAC forces during the military campaign. This in turn puts him in touch with a brigade of Turkish nationalists, with whom he travels across the country as they scramble to defend its borders against the Allied-back Greek rebels.
The sojourn into the Anatolian countryside that follows is an unexpected subplot, but its inclusion says much about Crowe’s aims in the film. On the one hand, it attempts to contextualise the legacy of Gallipoli from a Turkish perspective, acknowledging the ramifications of the West’s intrusion and imperial ambitions in the region after WWI. In and of itself, this is an admirable gesture, especially considering the relative paucity of Turkish perspectives in Australian histories of Gallipoli. The problem is it’s all rather inappropriately executed: because Connor – who has by now been unproblematically received by a Turkish nationalist group – is the central character effecting all major change in the film, this episode in Turkish resistance and struggle for independence is uncomfortably filtered through his actions. In a sequence that is emblematic of this unfortunate tendency, Crowe’s character saves the life of the Major Hassan from a swarthy Greek rebel by beating him over the head with a cricket bat (!).
Less surprising though no less frustrating are the numerous dubious aesthetic choices that afflict The Water Diviner, typical of these big-budget, serious historical dramas. I can’t remember the last film I saw that abused slow-motion as much as this one, overusing the technique and turning dramatic sequences into awkwardly drawn out exercises in emotional histrionics at 12 frames per second. Coupled with the over-bearing score that carpets all scenes where a character might be feeling any emotion, the effect is maudlin: one gets the impression that these sequences were directed above all with a mind to how they would turn out in the film’s trailer rather than anything approaching nuanced drama. The use of flashback – especially prevalent given Connor’s faintly ridiculous “divining” powers, which allow him to discover both water and dead bodies underground – is your bog-standard tinted-and-grainy-footage-introduced-by-a-nondescript-percussive-sound, just to hammer home the temporal shift to the audience.
If The Water Diviner has anything going for it, it’s the fairly strong anti-war sentiment that runs through the film, though this is hardly high praise in and of itself. Throughout cinema history, the take away message about war has generally been: it’s bad.3 As a film about the legacy of Gallipoli, Crowe’s attempt to make a story that speaks to both Australian and Turkish history result in the first-time director over stretching himself. By threading the protagonist’s journey through these foundational moments in Turkish history, he folds them all too tidily into the undertakings of his Australian hero.