Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Russell Crowe

Stars: Russell Crowe, Olga Kuylenko, Steve Bastoni, Yilmez Erdogan, Ryan Corr, Jai Courtney, Dan Wyllie, Isabel Lucas, Jacqueline McKenzie, Cem Yilmaz, Denis Akdeniz, Damon Herriman, Megan Gale, Michael Dorman, Robert Mammone, James Frazer, Dylan Georgiades, Ben O’Toole.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli we can probably expect a surfeit of projects reexamining this bloody WWI campaign that defined the ANZAC legacy, an enduring legend forged in battle, with its accompanying themes of courage, mateship and sacrifice. First project out of the box is Russell Crowe’s ambitious and epic drama The Water Diviner, which can be viewed as a companion piece to Peter Weir’s classic Gallipoli.

Weir’s 1981 film was a potent and moving exploration of the campaign that helped establish our sense of national identity. It also looked at issues of mateship, the futility of war, the tragic loss of a young generation and the horrors of the battlefield. And it had that evocative and haunting score from Brian May that still sends chills down the spine. Crowe’s WWI drama has similar aspirations and ambitions, but it doesn’t quite reach the same lofty heights.

The film is set in 1919, four years after the battle of Gallipoli. The world is adjusting to an uneasy peace, and Turkey is undergoing a volatile political change and is embroiled in another war, this time with Greece. Back in Australia, farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe), who has the ability to find water even the more arid rural areas of north west Victoria, is struggling to come to terms with the loss of his three sons at Gallipoli. But following the suicide of his wife after years of depression, he vows to travel to Turkey to find the bodies of his sons who were killed at Gallipoli and bring them home to be buried on the family farm.

But initially he finds obstruction from the occupying British troops who refuse to give him permission to travel to Gallipoli. But a couple of sympathetic Turks help Connor reach the mass burial grounds on the hills of Gallipoli.

The Water Diviner has been written by television writer Andrew Knight (Full Frontal, etc) and first time writer Andrew Anastasios. Anastasios was actually researching a different episode of Australian history when he stumbled upon a letter written by Cyril Hughes, the officer in charge of recovering the bodies of Australian diggers buried in Turkey for identification and repatriation. Hughes wrote of a father who came to Turkey looking for the body of his son. That inspired him to create the script for The Water Diviner, and something about the story resonated with Crowe, who chose this film to make his debut as a director.

This epic production shows that he has obviously studied the style and techniques of many of those great filmmakers he has worked with, including Weir, Ron Howard and of course Ridley Scott. And the epic sweep of some of the action sequences, like the attack on a train, are also reminiscent of the late, great David Lean. The film was something of a labour of love for Crowe, who spent two years bringing his vision to the screen.

The Water Diviner looks at the ANZAC myth and the horrors of Gallipoli from a slightly different perspective, and is somewhat sympathetic towards the Turkish experience, but its antiwar sentiments still resonate strongly. There are themes of national identity, nationalism, mateship, war and peace, heroism, love and roles of fatherhood running throughout the film. Crowe directs with a sensitivity and a cultural awareness, but he also brings a gut wrenching authenticity to the brief battle scenes, which are well staged and capture the chaos and horrors of war. But this is also a love story, and there is a strong emotional undercurrent to the material which becomes slightly mawkish at times.

The film has been beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings trilogies, Healing, etc) whose camera captures some gorgeous vistas as well as the bleak horrors of war. Lesnie brings to life some exotic Turkish locations, including the spectacular and famed Blue Mosque for which Crowe gained special permission to film.

Crowe himself brings his typically stoic persona to his role as Connor, a man driven by personal grief and desperation to achieve something extraordinary. Crowe has assembled a solid ensemble supporting cast featuring the likes of Jai Courtney (Felony, A Good Day To Die Hard, etc), who plays Hughes; Dan Wyllie; and Ryan Corr, who plays one of Connor’s three sons.

Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko plays the widowed Ayshe, a beautiful Turkish woman who runs a small tavern where Connor stays, and a friendship develops between the pair much to the chagrin of her conservative uncle Omer (played by Steve Bastoni). Turkish actor Yilmez Erdogan (from Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, etc) brings a touch of dignity to his role as Major Hasan, a former Turkish soldier who becomes sympathetic to Connor and an unlikely ally in his search to locate the bodies of his sons.

In a year that has seen few local productions do well at the box office, the epic scope and grand themes of The Water Diviner, as well as Crowe’s solid and reassuring presence, should be more than enough to ensure that the film does well. It is also one of the few local films that has broad appeal.



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