Review – The Water Diviner (2014)

Director: Russell Crowe

Starring: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Jai Courtney, Dylan Georgiades, Cem Yilmaz, Ryan Corr

Water DivinerNext year marks the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, a First World War campaign which is for many a formative moment in our national history as it marked the first time that Australians fought as ANZACs rather than as part of the British military. With such a significant milestone on the horizon it is no surprise that we are seeing a return of Gallipoli to our screens, both big and small, with the latest offering being Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, The Water Diviner.

In 1919, in the aftermath of the Great War, Australian farmer Joshua Connor travels to Gallipoli to recover the bodies of his three sons who never returned from the campaign. All three were lost on the same day, 7th August, 1915. But after recovering two of the bodies he discovers that one of his boys was taken prisoner by Turkish soldiers, and with the help of Major Hasan of the Turkish army he attempts to trace the whereabouts of his remaining son.

The Great War marked the first time that attempts were made to recover and identify the bodies of fallen soldiers. The film’s story was inspired by a single line in a letter from a Colonel in the Imperial War Graves Unit which noted that an Australian man came to Gallipoli searching for his sons’ graves. However, from there the film takes some obvious dramatic license in telling this ‘true story.’ The title The Water Diviner is a reference to Joshua’s ability to locate the groundwater needed to run his farm in the punishing climate of the outback. Divining water is one thing – as strange as it sounds there are plenty of people who swear by the effectiveness of dowsing, as it is also known – but watching Joshua use this same method to locate the spot where his sons’ bodies are buried in the battlefield is quite a leap for an audience to take.

The Gallipoli campaign received its definitive cinematic treatment in 1981 with Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, but with The Water Diviner Crowe manages to bring a new perspective to this much mythologised moment in Australia’s history. The Water Diviner offers a far greater focus on the Turkish experience of the battle than has previously been offered to Australian audiences. This engaging of a different perspective starts as simply as acknowledging that the Turks don’t even call the site Gallipoli. Major Hasan reminds us that while 10,000 ANZACs fell there, 70,000 Turks lost their lives. On top of this, even in 1919 the war was not yet over for the Turks. As the rest of the world breathed a sigh of relief, the Turks were fiercely defending their territory as the Greeks carved away at the Ottoman Empire. As we watch the uneasy cooperation between Allied and Turkish military in the aftermath of the war we see both sides coming to terms with what has occurred. As Lt-Col Hughes concedes, “I don’t know if I forgive any of us.”

Alongside this exploration of Turkey in the aftermath of the war is an entirely unnecessary romantic subplot which sees Joshua making eyes at Ayshe, the woman who runs the hotel he is staying at in Istanbul. She is also grieving having lost her husband in the war, a fact she has not yet confessed to her son Orhan. This rather trite romantic subplot is nowhere near as interesting or engaging as the rest of the film and results in an uncomfortable clashing of tones, with one story being quite sombre and serious and the other being at times light and whimsical.

As a directorial debut, The Water Diviner does not blow you away, but it represents the sort of competent handling of the material you would expect from a man who has been an active collaborator for much of his 25 years as an actor. While some of its narrative elements are a bit naff, The Water Diviner’s invitation to consider the sacrifices made on both sides of this conflict makes it a notable contribution to the ever expanding exploration of the Gallipoli campaign.

Rating: ★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen The Water Diviner? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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