Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Water Diviner

3/4

Starring: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Dylan Georgiades, Jai Courtney, Jacqueline McKenzie

Rated R for War Violence including Some Disturbing Images

For whatever reason, Hollywood shies away from movies about World War I.  There are plenty of movies about The Civil War ("Glory," "Gettysburg"), The American Revolution ("The Patriot," "1776"), Vietnam ("Platoon," "Apocalypse Now").  The other great war, World War II, probably has more movies to its name than every other war combined.  Yet the conflict that took place between 1914 and 1918 is rarely the subject for films (other than "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "Joyeux Noel," I can't think of any).

I'm not sure why that is.  It's not like it's not cinematic; a truly visionary director could definitely make a thrilling spectacle of trench warfare.  Perhaps it's because the conflict was too complex to be approached.  It's a shame, really, because there are bound to be many fascinating stories from the period waiting to be filmed.

Russell Crowe's directorial debut, "The Water Diviner," isn't the definitive WWI motion picture.  It's a heavily flawed film to the point where I almost considered giving it a 2.5.  Another reason is that, for the most part, it takes place three years after the war has ended.  The story is about picking up the pieces, and how for some, war doesn't end with the surrender.

Joshua Connor (Crowe) and his wife Eliza (McKenzie) have not gotten over the death of their sons, who died in the Battle of Gallipoli.  They are being torn apart with their grief, particularly at the fact that they are buried in some foreign land.  After Eliza drowns herself, Joshua takes it upon himself to bring them home.

I gotta hand it to Crowe: he's ambitious.  He's bitten off a bit more than he can chew, but for the most part this is an effective debut.  The film loses focus from time to time and many scenes don't have the effect that Crowe would like, but I will give him points for the attempt, especially since there are definitely scenes that are quite effective.

Crowe's agenda is two-pronged: show Joshua's search for his sons' bodies and his experience with the Greek invasion of Turkey.  His melding of the two conflicts isn't always seamless, but overall it works.  Both are compelling, and I was never bored.

The performances work.  This isn't Crowe's best performance (that goes to his portrayal of John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind"), but as a grieving father who will do anything for closure, he does a solid job.  The best performances are given by his co-stars, the always luminous Olga Kurylenko (playing Ayshe, the Turkish hotel manager whose husband is missing) and Yilmaz Erdogan (playing Major Hasan, a Turkish commander who sympathizes with his plight.  Both are excellent, playing rather clich√©d characters with heart and honesty.

On a superficial level, there's not much that is original to be found here.  But the flavors are so different that by that element alone they have found new life.  It's amazing what a change of scenery can do for a familiar story.  Of course, solid performances and storytelling, not to mention superior cinematography (Crowe has an eye for setting...some of the scenery shots are breathtaking) help, but still.

One sequence I would like to mention specifically is when Joshua is searching for his sons on the battlefield.  It's cross-edited with scenes from the battle, and represents a harrowing five minutes.  It's not as innovative or emotionally-taxing as the Omaha beach segment in "Saving Private Ryan," but it's nonetheless difficult to watch.  It's good enough that it's worth the admission price just to see it.

I also liked how Crowe allows his characters to reflect on their situation.  One Australian remarks to a Turk that a few years ago they would have killed each other, but now they're having tea together.  This introspective nature of the film lends it emotional weight.

As I said before, "The Water Diviner" is closer to a misfire than a success.  But I'm recommending it for a few reasons.  First is the aforementioned battle scene.  Second is the change in setting.  And finally because it takes chances (something that I will always give a film credit for).  Plus, I got a kick out of the fact that the scene in the Blue Mosque brought back memories of my visit to Istanbul 9 years ago.  That carries weight too.

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