The Water Diviner

May, 2015, Drama

 

The title of this offbeat historical drama by Russell Crowe is nearly as mysterious as the fact that he fought to be both the movie’s leading man and its director. In international markets, the film is being marketed under the title Promise of Life, a much more evocative description of this story about a middle-aged Australian farmer’s search for the three sons he lost in the  battle for Gallipoli in 1915. Working with a quiet, dignified style on both sides of the camera, Crowe offers a rate glimpse into Australia’s role in WWI while offering an even more compelling examination of that conflict’s role in the relationship between a physically remote portion of the British Empire and the rise of modern Turkey. The movie’s dubious assertion of “based on real events” and a preposterous reliance on circumstance notwithstanding, Diviner  turns out to be one of the more interesting movies thus far this year and an excellent opportunity to once again see Crowe’s skill as an actor capable of an effortless ability to embody a screen hero through sheer commanding presence.

As the second decade of the twentieth century grinds to an end, John Conner, a stoic farmer in Australia’s outback, arrives in Istanbul seeking the recovery of his son’s bodies. They were lost in the battle of Lone Pine, a pivotal engagement in the Allies’ efforts to seize the Dardanelles, capture Constantinople and thus eliminate the tottering Ottoman Empire’s support of their German ally. After a brief but crucial stay at a run-down hotel in the city operated by a skeptical widow named Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), Connor maneuvers himself to the battlefield as British and Turkish authorities begin the laborious task of identifying and properly burying thousands of Aussie and Turkish troops who lost their lives in the battle for the Gallipoli peninsula, that hardscrabble landmass which forms the northern bank of the entrance to the Dardanelle straits.

Despite the reluctance of British officials determined to frustrate his efforts, Connor’s odyssey impresses Major Hasan, (Yilmaz Erdogan) the Turkish officer in charge of his country’s efforts in the joint exhumation of combatants. With his help, Connor succeeds in locating the site where two of his sons have fallen. But the lack of any evidence about Arthur, the oldest, forces Connor’s return to Istanbul and the hotel run by the presumed Turkish widow being pressured by her family to remarry.

What follows is a tale of such romantic paternal & romantic implausibility as to render the criteria of “a willing suspension of disbelief” impossible; suffice it to say that, with Hasan’s assistance,  Connor briefly enters a Turkish-Greek warzone in search of Arthur before successfully returning to Istanbul and Ayshe’s welcoming smile…</p>

Screenwriters Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, both with extensive experience in writing and producing for series television, bring that medium’s penchant for generic dialogue to their character’s here, which lends an annoying predictability to much of Diviner’s screenplay, but their willingness to unapologetically insist on mutual respect between former enemies along with an unabashed condemnation of the devastating cost of war allow this movie to rise well above the genre’s typical clichés.

Diviner also benefits considerably from the contributions of its three leading actors. Crowe’s appealing stoicism and Kurylenko’s spitfire charisma make for one of this year’s most appealing romantic couples. The Ukrainian-born model/actress (Quantum of Solace, Oblivion) conveys an intriguing mixture of old world charm and spirited feminism to her Ayshe that almost overcomes the decided age gap between these two. But it’s Crowe who marks a turning point in his career with this portrait of a terse but heart-broken laborer whose love for his sons radiates from the actor’s grizzled face. And as the taciturn Kasan, Ergodan (a veteran of Turkish movies) conveys a mixture of admiration for Connor’s familial love with an entirely believable military reticence in the midst of his country’s convulsive arrival on the world’s 20th century map.  

Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, the prolific visual artist behind both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies makes the most of the film’s Australian and Turkish locations, both of which lend an authentic feel to the movie without which it’s modest production budget might have made it far less pleasing to the eye.

The Verdict? While the plot wanders into soap opera territory mid-script, distinctive performances by its three leads makes this one an interesting way to inaugurate summer’s more widely-promoted releases.

 

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