Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Water Diviner

Lowdown: An Aussie father who lost his three sons at Gallipoli goes there to track them down.
Having established Gallipoli serves that good old Murdoch point of view on the ANZAC motif, we sought to learn further. You know, maybe we might even receive a proper account (for a change!) on what the ANZAC story is/was all about. We turned to our old mate Russell Crowe and his recent 2014 account, which also happens to be his directorial debut, The Water Diviner.
To the uninitiated, I will disclose that Mr Crowe was born in New Zealand (the NZ of ANZAC), has resided in Australia since he was a child, and has been repeatedly denied Australian citizenship. I can see why: his The Water Diviner is UnAustralian. By violating contemporary conventions and telling the story from all sides while making the most of the cinematic tools available to artists today, Mr Crowe is standing against all the usual myths. On the way there he has also managed to produce one hell of a war movie.
The Water Diviner starts off as tragically as such stories can. We meet our hero, Joshua (Crowe), a South Australian farmer, as he uses his water divining skills to dig a new well. Yes, I know, water divining is as bullshit as bullshit gets, but it is instrumental to the film’s structure and – once we accept the fantastic – allows this war movie to do war movies as well as anyone can.
Following his successful dig we meet Joshua’s wife, and witness him read his children their bedtime stories. Only that the beds are empty and the children, all three of them, are dead. The fact the war is already over (and won) does not prevent tragedy from following up on tragedy, forming up a resolute Joshua: he will head to Gallipoli, trace all three of his children, and achieve closure for all family members.
The rest of The Water Diviner takes place in Turkey. Joshua arrives there, to the now British controlled Istanbul, and starts asking questions. It is clear the British cannot be bothered with him; as far as they are concerned, Joshua is one of many and they are already doing their best to recover remains at Gallipoli. On the other hand, Joshua learns, through his Turkish hotel room providers, that he is not only clueless concerning local culture but also completely unaware of the toll the same war that lost him his children took on the locals whose very home was invaded by the ANZACs.
Joshua does not give up, though. Through continued efforts he earns the sympathies of some of the locals as well as some of the British; most notable, though, is the support he receives from Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan), the Turkish commander who led the local defence efforts and was almost certainly the orchestrator of Joshua children's deaths. Between this and your average romantic subplot with Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), a Turkish woman that knew war tragedy herself, the tragic circle is complete: we realise war is the real and only enemy between those two sides.
The differences between this and Gallipoli are blatantly obvious. Whereas one is all about national ethos, the other is about conciliation and closure so that we can all move on with our lives, the way we should, while recognising the terrible cost of wasted human lives. That understanding, that sense of closure, is provided by exposing us to the realities of war as they affect both sides. There is none of the implied “we are superior to them” state of mind that dominates Gallipoli; all are equal in The Water Diviner, and all suffer their own way (yet all to similarly).
At the end, the tacky ending does not distract from the fact that what we have ourselves here is a great war movie that makes the most of its “looking back” perspective. One hundred years later, the real tragedy is that our national ethos is still driven by the likes of Gallipoli instead of the likes of The Water Diviner.
Best scene: The image of an injured soldier that yells and groans for hours and hours at no man’s land until he dies has tattooed itself into my brain. Most war movies skip over this in their rush for action; The Water Diviner’s advantage, in its post mortem approach to war, allows it to expose its viewers to a new brand of atrocities.
By my account, The Water Diviner now stands firmly as one of the all time best war movies. It is not Saving Private Ryan; it’s focus is on the aftermath of war. That, however, is probably the most useful way for viewers to learn what war is all about.
If this is Crowe’s first venture into the director’s chair, I can’t wait for his more mature and learned efforts. For now, I give The Water Diviner 5 out of 5 saluting crabs.

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