Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Water Diviner

Alternate Title:  Gallipoli 2: Revenge of the Cyber-Aussies

One sentence synopsis:     A widower whose three sons were all killed at the Battle of Gallipoli, goes to Turkey in 1919 to try and find their remains.

Things Havoc liked:  For all the obsessive retellings of WWII I've seen on screen, there aren't a huge number of movies about its predecessor out there, due primarily to the twin factors of WWI having not been a particularly cinematic war (trenches are only so interesting), and the United States having had not a whole hell of a lot to do with it. Yet alongside the obscure or art-house pieces one does find on the subject such as The Lost Battalion, Paths of Glory, or All Quiet on the Western Front, the major exception has always been Australian films, as the war has never been supplanted in Australian memory, not even by its sequel. The foremost Australian WWI movie I am aware of is, of course, Gallipoli itself, but Gallipoli is well over thirty years old at this point, and leave it to Russell Crowe, no longer young enough to play his typical bad boy roles, to try and replace it with a sombre historical piece about the aftermath of a lost battle halfway round the world.

Russell Crowe is a great actor of course, one of my favorites in everything from Gladiator to A Beautiful Mind to Master and Commander, but one of the nice things about seeing foreign indie films (and it is important, after the last couple of months, to remember that there are nice things) is encountering good actors one is not familiar with. Given that this movie takes place in Turkey, the two actors I speak of this time are Yılmaz Erdoğan and Cem Yılmaz (no relation), who respectively play Major Hassan and Sgt Jemal, two veterans of the battle of Gallipoli brought down by the Commonwealth forces to help locate and identify the bodies of those who died there. I have never seen either of these actors before in my life (Cem Yılmaz is most famous in Turkey as a stand-up comedian, of all things), but their characters are exquisitely-well-drawn, two dedicated soldiers who won their battle and lost their war, and who are now engaged in trying to find a way to preserve their country in defeat. Encountering Crowe early on, as he seeks to find out what happened to his sons, they carry the narrative through the tumultuous events of the transition between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey, and the sequences focusing on them, particularly an underground party wherein everyone gets drunk and begins telling old war stories ("This man is the worst soldier in the Turkish army. Three times, I saved this man!") or a standout fight sequence later on between a trainload of Turkish troops and a battalion of Greek irregulars, provide the movie with its best moments.

This movie is not merely a Russell Crowe vehicle, but also Crowe's directorial debut, and for this first foray behind the camera, Crowe recruited legendary cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who died just this last month, making this his final film. Lesnie was most famous for all six of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, and while the cinematography this time round isn't quite as lush, the film is beautiful when it needs to be, whether showing the wide open dry plains of the Australian Outback to the sun-draped shores of the Dardanelles, to the minaret-studded skyline of Istanbul (then Constantinople) at dusk, to the blasted, ravaged battlefields of Gallipoli itself. Lots of films justify their existences as travelogues, and if nothing else, this movie manages to serve well as a tourist ad for Turkey's Ionian coast.

Things Havoc disliked:  If nothing else indeed.

The core premise of this movie is fine, a man's search for his dead sons, and I have no objection to the contrivances that arise around it (such as the notion that Water Divining is somehow a real thing). What I do have an objection to though is a ham-fisted secondary plot surrounding French-Ukranian actress Olka Kurylenko, as Ayshe, the widow of a Turkish officer who also died at Gallipoli, and Dylan Georgiades as Orhan, her "adorable" ten year old son. These two have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot save to allow the obligatory love story to play out, something I'd be less upset by if they weren't both so damned awful in their parts. Kurylenko in particular, a veteran of Quantum of Solace, To the Wonder, and Hitman (all films, you may have noticed, that were not very good), I am simply prepared to label as a bad actress and move on. She is rigorously unconvincing as a Turkish widow, looking approximately as Turkish as I am, and overacting constantly as though afraid that the daring, novel idea of a woman from Turkey falling for our rugged Australian hero is so unexpected as to leave the audience agape at the staggering risks the movie is willing to take. Georgiades, meanwhile, plays the most aggravating type of child role imaginable, the cute moppet who warms the heart of the hero. The performance is bad, but any kid would do badly with material like this. Worse yet, it's apparent that the filmmakers were aware of the fact that these performances were awful or at least badly dated, and failed in consequence to tie them into the rest of the plot in any real sense. Ayshe and Orhan have nothing whatsoever to do with Crowe's search for his sons, not even in a thematic sense, thus giving us the impression that we are watching two completely disconnected movies happen before our eyes, forcing those characters that do bridge the two stories to change their motivations and intentions spontaneously in order to fit in.

And why is this subplot structured in so clunky a fashion? Well frankly, because Russell Crowe isn't a very good director, or at least isn't one yet. The whole film is structured in one of the more heavy-handed manners I've seen, with the direction and shot selection beating the viewer over the head with the notion that we are all SUPPOSED TO FEEL SAD NOW, ALRIGHT?! Some decent ideas, such as muting the most obligatory sappy sequences behind silent montage, do not cover for the fact that Crowe simply doesn't know what he is doing a great deal of the time. The British officers he encounters, for instance, are the most absurd pastiche, monocle-popping, stick-up-the-ass fastidious twits one can possibly imagine, twirling their mustaches in outraged propriety at the very notion that this colonial should think to come and upset their tea breaks by requesting to travel to the Dardanelles! As the film goes on, the British become positively pathological about ensuring that this unknown Australian farmer is inconvenienced as much as possible, sending soldiers to pursue him through the streets of Istanbul and across Asia Minor in the middle of a three-way war simply because the thought of leaving him be would be wholly unorthodox! (Harumph!) It's like this with everything, the Greek rebels who look like something out of Blackbeard's crew and must do evilly evil things for the sake of evilness just so the heroes can look gallant beside them, the arrogant Jr. officer who makes jaunty comments about how he expects Gallipoli will not be so bad as everyone tells him just so that he can have his comeuppance deployed in as telegraphed a manner as possible, the Irish priest who refuses to assist Crowe in burying his wife without a bribe because God has abandoned us!!!! Everything is so ridden with melodrama and telegraphed plot beats as to render the entire exercise fairly sterile, despite the obvious sincerity of the cast and crew.

Final thoughts:   I don't read other critics' reviews ahead of time, as I prefer to make my own mind up, but I do tend to consult them in the aftermath of my viewing, if only to see what others focused on that I may have missed, and in this case what I appear to have missed is some kind of grotesque and outrageous insult to the Armenian people due to the fact that this movie does not make mention of the Genocide against them on the part of the Ottoman army and government during WWI. With respect to the fact that the modern Turkish government's cowardly and censorious refusal to even discuss the subject does continue to turn my stomach, it does not follow that any movie that does not bring up the genocide in question is automatically an evil film out to recreate it all over again. I don't remember a lot of Holocaust references in Saving Private Ryan (or in last year's Fury), after all, and I did not read those movies as being anti-Semitic attempts to deny the legitimacy of the Holocaust. The Water Diviner is not a movie about the Armenian Genocide, and it is not at all fair to suggest that it is a bad film simply because it is about one subject and not another, especially not when there are perfectly good reasons to call it a bad film woven all throughout it.

Heartfelt though it is, the Water Diviner is a sappy, melodramatic, clunky film livened only by a handful of scenes that seem drawn from other, better movies, and while it is hardly some sin against man and god, it is the cherry on top of a long, bloody, ugly doldrums season that I am very glad to see the end of. Doldrums is always a hard time for me to get through, but this year was an unlivened disaster, and never have I been more happy to arrive at Blockbuster Season and its quota of mindless popcorn explosion-fests than I am now.

I get a lot of flak from certain circles about how I don't go to see enough independent, non-blockbuster fare. In the future, anyone making that objection will be instructed to go and watch the last eight weeks' worth of cinema that I have partaken in, and then let them tell me about my lack of taste and culture.

I, meanwhile, have a date with Marvel...

Final Score:  5/10

Next Time: Avengers Assemble.

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