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Review - "The Water Diviner"

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Water Diviner

A film directed by Russell Crowe

Viewed from the sea, the Peninsula is singularly beautiful… No army in history has made a more heroic attack…

"Gallipoli", an account by John Masefield (1916)


Col Robinson:    Tell Major Barton that the attack must proceed.

Frank Dunne:   Sir, I don’t think you’ve got the picture. They are being cut down before they get five yards.

"Gallipoli", a film directed by Peter Weir (1981)



The Gallipoli peninsula today is a ghost like terrain, eerily absent of life, both animal and human. The silence easily provokes contemplation by today’s generations of the exploits and the sacrifices during the First World War now one hundred years ago.

The barrenness of the landscape must have at first seemed unremarkable to the Australians who found themselves transported to their date with destiny on 25 April 1915. The dawn arrival across the water towards a beach ringed by cliff faces may have led minds to thoughts of their forebears entering Sydney Cove. More likely it fomented a gradual foreboding; the landing would have certainly compelled a nascent realisation of the tragedy to come.

The Water Diviner is a tale that draws on the Anzac story, one of a father searching for what remains of his family in the aftermath of the Great War.

Russell Crowe’s film, his first directorial effort, engenders a contemplative quality to a contemporary appreciation of the Anzac legend. Our hero, Joshua Connor, played by Crowe, first appears prospecting for water in a dry outback Australia with his divining rod and trusty canine companion. Of course he is successful, as were Australia’s settlers in conquering a ruggedly resistant continent, and immediately instils hope in the viewer that this bronzed bushman will likewise find his sons who are missing presumed dead, at Gallipoli.

This search is the core of the story, built on his grief and suffering and that of his wife.  Connor travels to Turkey to locate the remains of his three sons, battles with Australian and British officialdom, and encounters the Turkish, who move during the film from enemy to friend. As a first effort at the helm of a film, Crowe realises believable and engaging scenes, including the obligatory but mercifully brief battlefield action, as well as drawing affective and genuine performances from the cast. A stand out is Jacqueline McKenzie (Romper Stomper - also with Russell Crowe, Beneath Hill 60) as Connor’s wife Eliza, embodying in a few brief scenes all the grief and fervent disbelief that a whole generation’s loss would unleash. Yilmaz Erdogan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) as the Turkish officer Major Hasan in whom Connor finds a soul mate, has deservedly been recognised with AACTA and Film Critics’ awards for his portrayal of the slyly friendly local guide to Turkey and its complex post-war politics. Olga Kurylenko (To the Wonder, Quantum of Solace) provides the chaste love interest as Ayshe, a Turkish widow running the hotel at which Connor stays.

The film is sometimes overwhelmed by its sentimentality, but Crowe manages to reassure us with his central portrayal of a good man, and the supporting cast beguile, not unlike in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia which, panned by the critics, is another recent example of our nation’s top filmmakers successfully capturing some popular essence of our wartime past.

The centenary of the landing at Gallipoli in 2015 has brought forward a galaxy of Australian TV offerings (Anzac Girls, Gallipoli, Deadline Gallipoli), but only this film to date - the critically lauded mini-series Gallipoli particularly failed to excite audiences, which perhaps spent too long on the battlefield. The iconic image of Mark Lee’s Archie Hamilton going over the top at The Nek in Peter Weir’s seminal film of a David Williamson script remains an indelible imprint on our cultural memory even after more than thirty years. David Stratton has rightly said the Weir film Gallipoli is not only the Anzac film, but ‘the Australian film’.

Crowe’s risk-taking has paid off though with The Water Diviner becoming the thirteenth highest grossing Australian film at the box office (at the time of writing). To explain its success, many reviewers have highlighted Crowe’s interest in the Turkish side of the story, although I would caution against the simplistic reading this entails: Connor may befriend his hosts and succumb to exotic charms, but he also seeks to “save” a Turkish widow from her Muslim entanglements with his blokey charms, and finds himself converting his new found mateship with Major Hasan into fighting with him against “invading” Greeks, glossing over the Armenian question during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The divination power that proves central to the plot is a less awkward device than the believability demands of naturalistic settings would suggest: Eliza’s delirium, Connor’s protection of his sons in an Arabian Nights enchanted carpet during a windstorm, the reading of coffee grounds in Turkey, all contribute a low level mysticism to the story that helps suspend any disbelief in the eponymous art.

Perhaps the film’s defining image is of Connor wading ashore at Anzac Cove, unable to obtain official permission to join the Imperial War Graves Commission on site, and taking matters into his own hands, an unwelcome amateur in a professional arena - not unlike Australia’s Prime Minister Billy Hughes striding into the peace treaty negotiations at Versailles, also in 1919, unwanted but there anyway on the world stage.

Early cinematic renderings of the Gallipoli landings appeared quickly with The Hero of the Dardenelles and Within Our Gates released in the winter of 1915, clearly aimed at recruitment. Weir and Williamson’s bold foray during our long 1970-1988 bicentenary, a time in which Australia reimagined itself and opened up to the world, spoke to another form of nationalism. Archie’s unquestioning heroism, paired with his mate Frank Dunne’s (Mel Gibson) challenge to authority, symbolised both the independent DNA of Australia’s national character and the seeming pointlessness of the sacrifices for Empire. By decade’s end, on the 75th anniversary of the landings in 1990, Prime Minister Bob Hawke ensured the Anzac spirit, borne on the beaches of Gallipoli, and recast by Weir and Williamson for a mature Australia, would have its central place in this new identity.

But we are no longer looking to assert our nationalism. Instead we look for the ordinary story. Crowe’s Joshua Connor is not symbolic of anything other than the everyman. We see and accept without moral judgement his story as one among many whose lives were transformed by the experience of Gallipoli a century ago. Connor stands at Anzac Cove taking possession of its spirit not for Australia, but for every Australian. In this scene, The Water Diviner adds another cultural image to our collective memory.


Darren Mitchell worked as a public servant with the NSW Department of Veterans’ Affairs and is Ethos’s film reviewer.


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