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Russell Crowe New Zealand/Australia’s perennial candidate for the movies’ most manly man, does a creditable job of re-visiting the trauma of WW I, in his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, in which he is also the lead actor.

Movies Water DivinerAfter the 1918 Armistice ending WW I, small Australian and New Zealand military teams were allowed into Turkey to identify and re-bury as many of their dead from the 9 month long battle of Gallipoli (the Battle of Çanakkale to the Turks) as possible.  Joshua Conner, played by Crowe, is an Australian farmer/rancher who has been notified that all three of his sons died during that battle, some 5 years previously.  His wife, grief stricken, has taken her own life.  Conner sets out on his own to find the bodies and bring them home to lie with their mother, an unwelcome meddler to his uniformed countrymen. It’s not a bad premise for a story and is said to have sprung from a similar incident in Australian history.

Stunningly realized battle scenes, perhaps Conner’s imagination of what his sons experienced, or perhaps an omniscient director simply showing us, are very strong.  Above all there are moments of claustrophobic, vicious, hand to hand trench combat, as realistic and honest a portrayal of that type of war as you’re likely to see.  Crowe hews to historical honesty in showing an Australian shooting a wounded Turk –against all rules of war, and universally done.  There is realism in the suffering and actions of the brothers slowly dying while under fire.  The story is also honest about post treaty tensions between the Australians and the wary Turks who, though they had been on the losing side, were determined not to lose anymore territory or independence to the greed of the imperial powers (France, Britain or Italy) or especially to the Greeks, anxious to re-gain power and territory in land they had lived in for so long.

Landscape scenes in both Australia and in central Anatolia, where he goes looking for a possibly still living son, add a grandeur to the intimacy of looking for the dead, as do scenes shot in the famed Blue Mosque.  Unfortunately, one of the great beauties of the film is also a predictable weakness.  We know as soon as we see Ayshe (Olga Kurylenkothat a love story will ensue.  Too bad.  The complication that she, a widow from the same war, was expected to marry her brother-in-law, and was attracted to one of the ‘enemy’ might have been made more nuanced, less obvious, perhaps left unresolved.  But Kurylenko, not a Turk or a Kurd but a Ukrainian, is a sight to behold.  Her small son, (Dylan Georgiadesas bright eight years olds tend be, is wining, but again, a bit much out of a book written for children.  Had the writers gotten off the most probable path and taken us somewhere else we could have enjoyed a favorite story from a different view.

I also thought the interesting fact of the farmer being a water diviner in the Australian bush was stretched too far, and unnecessarily, to sensing with his hands where his sons lay underground.  Unnecessary, too, the scenes showing Greek attackers as spaghetti western bandidos.  Perhaps there were such, but Greece sent armies in; it was a national effort to reestablish Greek presence in the crumbling Ottoman heartland,  not simply bandit gangs.

Crowe does the viewers a favor by his addition of a small bit of Ottoman/Turkish history to our knowledge of those years.  As Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) tells Conner, the war was not over for the Turks. One of the heroes of  Çanakkale, Mustafa Kemal, was in the process of becoming Ataturk, re-mobilizing the defeated army and inspiring civil resistance against Entente efforts at occupation. The tension between the Major’s sense of duty to his nascent country and friendship and fellow father feeling to Conner is well done

My eye is always alert to what a film conveys about war.  Is it glorious, funny, comforting, wretched? Are motive, reactions, understanding, bafflement, opposition explored? Above all, is it honest?  The Water Diviner gets high marks for that in my book. It’s a micro look at loss and at the experience of battle and gets a solid A for that.  No one would come away thinking, ‘Gee! That looks exciting! Wish I had a war to go to!’ Even if the other parts of the film are too fanciful or too broadly brushed to let the whole experience be fully satisfying, it’s worth your evening.

Here’s a bit of YouTube official trailer, to plink your interest.

Here, an appreciation in a Turkish English language review.

And here a quarrel with some of the history, always interesting to read but often unrelated to the worth of the movie.  Some have complained that a film claiming to be historical, of this period in Turkey, must show something of the Armenian slaughter.  I get the claim and it would have taken only a few establishing shots to bring that realism to Conner’s quest.  The film showed nothing of it.  Here, an even stronger take on that.

But save reading them until you’ve seen it….