“What were you doing before the war?” asks Lt. Colonel Cyril Hughes. Major Hassan responds, “This is Ottoman Empire, there is no such a thing as before the war here. But in another life I was an architect.”
World War I was a major international conflict that grew out of a small incident (the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, by a Yugoslavian nationalist). One of its most famous campaigns was fought in Eastern Europe from 1915 to 1916 at Gallipoli (located in modern-day Turkey). Very few films depicting (or even involved with) the Gallipoli campaign have been made; Peter Weir’s 1981 Australian classic Gallipoli starring Mel Gibson is perhaps the best known film related to the subject. More recently, the Gallipoli campaign has figured prominently in the narrative of Russell Crowe’s directorial debut The Water Diviner. A recipient of three Australian Academy Awards (including Best Picture), my interest in the film grew after seeing (and being impressed by) the first trailer released for it. The Water Diviner would also mark the second film of 2014 to feature Russell Crowe that carried religious overtones (the first being Darren Aronofsky’s Noah). I recently got a chance to see The Water Diviner on the big screen, and found it to be quite a powerful experience.
2014’s The Water Diviner centers on an Australian farmer in 1919 who journeys to Gallipoli in Turkey in the hope of finding the remains of his three sons (who died in battle four years earlier). Along the way, he encounters twists and turns, finding help and hope in the unlikeliest of places. Crowe assembled an excellent cast that includes himself (as Joshua Connor), Olga Kurylenko (as Ayshe), Yilmaz Erdogan (as Major Hassan), Jai Courtney (as Lt. Colonel Hughes), Cem Yilmaz (as Jemal), Dylan Georgiades (as Orhan), Isabel Lucas (as Natalia), Jacqueline McKenzie (as Eliza Connor), Ryan Corr (as Arthur), and Steve Bastoni (as Omer). Crowe gives one of his finest performances as a grieving father and widower who sets out on the almost impossible task of locating the remains of his dead sons in a foreign land. Kurylenko gives a restrained performance as a Turkish widow who runs a hotel in Istanbul who has yet to accept the loss of her husband (who also died at Gallipoli) and almost defiantly stands against the customs regarding Muslim women at that time in that part of the world (mainly her refusal to move on; to do what is expected of her). Perhaps the most surprisingly compelling performance comes from Erdogan as a complex Turkish major who has seen more than his fair share of war and ultimately risks his life to aid Connor in his quest.
Crowe’s direction is strong, drawing impressive performances and staging thrilling combat sequences that don’t hide the horrors of war. The screenplay by Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight (based on the book by Anastasios and Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios) explores faith and redemption (Connor’s quest to fulfill a promise to his dead wife), as well as the futility of war (reflections on the human cost of Gallipoli) and the bond between a father and his sons (Connor’s continued efforts to find what’s left of his family after some surprising revelations). The Water Diviner also marks the final film lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies), and it is a gorgeous film to look at (even during the battle sequences). There is almost a painterly touch to Lesnie’s visual scheme at times (Australia, and even Istanbul, have never looked better). The production design by Chris Kennedy is first-rate, as is Tess Schofield’s costume designs (I loved all of the period costumes, especially Crowe’s). The sound design by Wayne Pashley is incredible, and David Hirschfelder’s score is quite stunning.
The Water Diviner is an outstanding directorial debut by Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe. This tale of a father’s quest to bring his sons’ remains home to Australia is a surprisingly powerful experience that examines the cost of war on both sides and is reminiscent of the old David Lean epics (minus the epic running times, of course). Well-acted, written, and photographed, it is simply a must-see for all, no matter what your religious views are. Enjoy!