There is a lot of “Hollywood” in the romantic anti-war movie “The Water Diviner”, but there are some good lines and grand sentiments delivered, too. Imagine Russell Crowe riding a white steed along side his new-found friend cantering on a black one. The friend the same Turkish military officer fighting against all three of your sons in Gallipoli circa 1915. You have the image: Crowe (Mr. Joshua Conner) is a hero who can forgive, divine the hidden (water and sons), and save a surprise slaughter with a cricket stick. He also, besides sticking by a suicidal wife, mentors a young boy and captures the love of a beautiful Turkish widow. Crowe is the director, too!
The action begins with close-ups of Turkish preparations for war. We see dust and death,but the music is too loud to allow for the soulful images to sink in. Based on truth, we know many Aussies joined the British in fighting the red and white crescent and starred flag of the Turks.The walled trenches became prisons of death.The brutal hand-to-hand, head bashing combat that is portrayed here are some of the hardest frames to watch. War is seen as viscerally savage.
The story does not unfold chronologically. We have flashbacks and jerking “four years before ” screen memos. We are introduced to Lizzy, Conner’s wife, and we hear him reading “The Arabian Nights” to his three sons. Middle Eastern literature is given its due ala Warner Brothers. Using the dowsing sticks to find water and shoring up a newly made well is muscled fun and gratifying to watch and ties in with a beautiful watery escape later in the film.
After a rough start, the film hooks us up with Conner’s pilgrimage to return his sons to their Australian homeland and bury them near their mother. Conner believes all three of his soldier sons ( Arthur, Henry, and Edward ) were killed on the same day, August 7th, 1915. After his grief stricken wife drowns herself, Conner shovels dirt on her grave and promises,” I’ll find them love,and bring them back to you.”
By using a son’s returned diary, Conner travels to Istanbul. Amidst a maze of fezzes and alleyways, through baazaars and mosques, we are initiated into a culture where the beautiful Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) is met. There is a lovely shot where her shadow -tears show her widow’s pain. She measures a man by how much he loves his children. She is abused by her brother-in-law who wishes to take her as a second wife and visit her every third night. We see her doting on her ten-year-old son, reading coffee grounds,preparing meals, beating rugs,caring for an aging father, dancing and enjoying music, and keeping twenty paces behind Conner so that perhaps there will be no shame. As their shared belief that “Hope is always a necessity” strenghtens their physical attraction,the situation changes when Conner tries to intervene on her behalf and is set up for an honor killing. Ayshe fearing for him screams,”This is not your world. Go home,Mr. Conner. ”
After he gives her son his copy of “The Arabian Nights”, she helps him escape over rooftops and into the caves of Turkish Nationals who allow him to follow them to the restricted battlefields in search of his sons. The British have thwarted his efforts,but the Persian curse, “May you outlive your children” is deeply understood by the Turkish major. It is from the wise major that we hear,”you invaded us”,and the divisions you drew up will keep the “factions constantly at war.”
The one-hundred year anniversary of the battle at Gallipoli calls for a little research,at least more than is given in the film’s few framed texts. ANZACS ( an acroymn for the New Zealand and Australian Army Corp) and part of the larger British Forces wished to control the Dardenelles so that shipping lanes could be unlocked and Russian wheat and Allie supplies could flow. In 1911, Russian wheat exports constituted thirty-seven per cent of World market.
Still, “The Water Diviner” tries to do too much for one film. It is like the director Crowe wishes us to “climb onto the magic carpet” and let him be savior-sultan-mate for three hours.
I have not even mentioned the shell-shocked,church icon-painter and whirling dervish. Or the funny lines when Connor berates the Turks for their lack of record keeping. The response being, “We are Ottomen, not German!” Or the thirty-one cemeteries where Turkish and British bones were attempted to be separated out. Or the institutional church which tries to punish by with-holding burial in consecrated ground,and is smacked with the rhetorical question,”How much blood do you need for it ( ground) to be holy?!”
I feel the question for this film may be similar. “How much ground do you need to cover to show that to recover from war grief and war guilt one needs action ?”