Film Review – The Water Diviner
The Water Diviner
It’s interesting how wars have both over represented and under represented periods on film. Vietnam has quite a few movies portraying it now. The Civil War has it’s fair share. Even the current war in the middle east is racking up a sizeable amount of film. World War II is probably the most filmed, examined, re-enacted, dissected, and played out war in American movies. However, World War I, The Great War, is often forgotten or ignored. Sure, there are some notable examples of movies set then: All Quiet on the Western Front, War Horse, Wings, etc. But for the most part, it’s a conflict that gets relatively short shrift from storytellers. So the fact that it’s the focus of Russell Crowe‘s new film The Water Diviner is refreshing.
The Battle of Gallipoli was a major loss for the Australian army in WWI. Thousands of lives were lost and the Turkish army held them off until they had to retreat. In the film, after a brief prologue, 4 years have passed since the end of the war. Connor (Crowe) and his wife had 3 sons who all fought in the battle. With their boys presumed dead, their daily grief is palpable. And though Connor is trying to keep going finding at least distraction in his farm, his wife is insane with grief. She ends up taking her own life. Connor, trying to keep a vow he made to her, has decided to go find his sons remains so he can bring them home to be buried next to her. That search is what makes up the bulk of the running time of The Water Diviner.
Connor’s search is happening at the same time that the Australian army is working with the Turkish army to sort through the dead on the battlefield. As one officer in the film points out, this is the first time that anyone has ever cared about identifying the enlisted men. In previous wars, only the officers were bothered with while the infantry were dumped into large mass graves. Their families never truly knew what happened to them. Meanwhile, their uneasy alliance with the Turkish makes for a lot of tension. These were soldiers who fought on opposing sides not long before this effort. So, not all of the men can put the past behind them. Couple that with the fact that Greece and Turkey were fighting over the remains of the country after the war and you get an inherently dramatic setup.
While the basic outline of this movie has echoes of Saving Private Ryan, the search for specific soldiers in the mass of a war torn country for non-combat purposes, The Water Diviner is much more pedestrian in it’s telling. It is essentially great dramatic material only adequately told. There are too many telegraphed emotional beats and too much Hollywood-esque neatness to how some of this plays out.
For example, when Connor first arrives in Turkey, his bag is stolen by a movie-cute moppet who recruits him to stay in his family’s hotel. And his mother just happens to be played by former Bond girl Olga Kuryenko. No matter how much they try to dress her in peasant rags, she still looks like a model who’s playing at humble. Will our protagonist and the pretty servant lady have a flirtation while growing to understand each other’s cultures more? Hmmm. How has that played out in most every movie you’ve ever seen before? Exactly.
The main frustration here is that Director Crowe doesn’t trust the rich material he’s tapped into here enough. We aren’t able to feel the full weight of the dramatic beats here. Often scenes are cut off too quickly like he’s afraid the audience will get bored if we don’t move on. There is good material here. The film is earnest to a fault. But the narrative ends up so linear that it lacks nuance. The acting is solid, especially Yilmaz Erdogan as one of the Turkish officers that helps Connor in his search. He wears an air of weariness with war that adds some depth to the proceedings. Also, some of the shots of the outback and battle scarred earth are moving.
But this is also another tale of the heroic white man entering a foreign culture. He remains very neutral throughout, but the movie industry’s propensity to make stories like this all about white males continues. As we’ve seen countless times, he is supposed to be our window into looking at this culture. It’s great because it is an interesting world. In America it is a bit more unique to see the Australian perspective on the world. But at some point someone in film might want to value the lives of indigenous people in a culture as much as they do the white male outsider.
Russell Crowe obviously means well choosing this as his first major directorial effort. It is rich dramatic material and is universally well acted. However, The Water Diviner might have been better served by storytelling that could find more subtlety in the drama.