Set in the year 1919, “The Water Diviner” follows the story of Joshua Connor (portrayed by Russell Crowe) who, after the death of his wife, promises to bring home the bodies of his three sons who were lost in the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War.
Given that 2014 marked the centennial commemorations of the start of the First World War, it was poignant for this film to released on the hundredth anniversary of the commencement of the Gallipoli campaign.
The storyline, scripted by Andrew Anastasios and Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios, cleverly interweaves three time periods – Joshua’s “present” of 1919 alongside the 1915 time period following his decision to allow his sons to enlist in the ANZACs and an incident from the boys’ childhood which carries significance throughout the film. Whilst not being a particular fan of this form of storytelling, I felt that it works in this instance because it adds weight to the type of man who Joshua is, particularly when it comes to the promise that he makes to his wife, the regret he feels for letting his sons enlist and the bond of loyalty that he instills in all three of his sons.
The film, whilst using the First World War as its setting, doesn’t glorify warfare in any fashion. Yes, it does commemorate the sacrifice that people made during the First World War – especially at the end of the film when the pre-credit caption speaks of the numbers of casualties throughout the conflict, but the film has two points in addition to this throughout.
The first message is that war comes at a cost – both to combatants and civilians. This is seen through the eyes of Connor himself through the death of his wife and his mission to find out what has happened to his sons. It is also seen from the perspective the characters of Ayshe, portrayed by Olga Kurylenko, and her son alongside the characters of Major Hasan and Sergeant Jemal, portrayed by Cem Yilmaz and Yilmaz Erdogan respectively, as they see their country carved up between the post-war nations.
Secondly, the film speaks of the fact that once the guns stop firing at wartime, there has to be some form of reconciliation between the participating nations to build a peace. This is most telling in the relationship between Connor, Hasan and Jemal as they move from anger on Connor’s part over the death of his sons, to a form of grudging assistance, to a bond of friendship.
Russell Crowe not only stars in the role of the eponymous Water Diviner, Joshua Connor, but also makes his debut behind the camera as the film’s director and manages to do an outstanding job on both fronts. As Connor, he manages to balance the emotional drive of a man seeking to find out what happened to his sons alongside being, for want of a better phrase, a “stranger in a strange land” of post-war Turkey, not only in his journey to find out what happened to his sons, but also in his interactions with Ayshe and her family for reasons that become apparent throughout the story.
Behind the camera, he manages to direct the film in a manner which doesn’t sensationalise war or picks sides. This helps not only in delivering the messages that I speak of, but also in humanising the main characters and preventing stereotyping – which is important especially considering there is a handful of characters who are written as being , what we would call in the 21st century, institutionalised racist in their language.
In addition to this, Crowe manages to use the scenery of Australia and Turkey to deliver the scope of his film with beautiful cinematography, but manages to make the storyline the driver rather than the film become a tourism advert for the two countries.
I have only seen Olga Kurylenko in two previous films – Quantum Of Solace and Oblivion. Both of these films have seen Kurylenko take on the action genre, so it was nice to see a different side to her acting. Granted, the role of Ayshe has a predictable story arc by the film’s conclusion, but the journey of the character is interesting as she moves from somebody who dislikes the character of Connor for reasons that become apparent during the course of the film through to a warm friendship between the pair. Alongside this, the character of Ayshe also has a “B story” which sees her nature as a relatively modern woman come into conflict with the traditional upbringing of her family.
Cem Yilmaz and Yilmaz Erdogan give rounded performances in their roles of Hasan and Jemal. They portray the two characters as men who have to walk a political tightrope of assisting the British and Australian forces with their aim to get the war graves of Gallipoli identified whilst playing a dangerous game of leading the Turkish resistance against the Greek armed forces. Alongside this, Yilmaz and Erdogan manage to build in a rounded performance in their respective roles as their characters relate to the character of Connor as men as opposed to two sides of a conflict.
The performances by Ryan Corr, James Fraser and Ben O’Toole as the three Connor sons have to portray two distinctly opposing emotions – the opening optimistic “adventure” of three young men going off to war and the heartbreaking reality of conflict which becomes apparent as the story progresses.
Dylan Georgiades gives an energetic and cheeky performance in the role of Ayshe’s son, Orhan, whilst Jai Courtney backs up his role in the World War II film “Unbroken” with another role as a military officer in the role of Imperial War Graves officer Lt-Col. Hughes.
Despite this film’s grounding in the time period, its messages are ones of not only of commemoration of the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the entirety of the 1914-18 conflict but also a chance to pause and reflect on whether there are any real “winners” in war – something that the character of Hasan questions himself.
On a personal level, as somebody who recently found out that my great-grandfather, who was killed in World War I, is buried in an area that I will never be able to visit, the journey made by Joshua Connor carried a particular emotional resonance for me. Whilst there is a place and a financial need for the big blockbuster films, it’s important that films such as this are made to remind people of the lessons of the past.