dir: Russell Crowe
I never thought I’d be typing the words “dir: Russell Crowe” at the beginning of one of my reviews, but then we live in a brave, new world where anything is apparently possible.
Anything is possible, to the extent that Crowe could make and star in a flick set around Gallipoli, and that it actually ends up being an okay film that I enjoyed.
Even more perplexing is that this is one of the few flicks I can think of where the Australians aren’t praised to the high heavens for their sun bronzed bravery on the sands of Gallipoli, and the Turks aren’t demonised for their actions defending their homeland. It may be this great nation’s foundation myth, but its utility in magnifying how great we Aussies truly are (for dying in great numbers in the service of the British Empire) isn’t used here.
It’s a far more personal story, in that it’s mostly about one chap (Crowe, good ol’ Australia’s Own Kiwi Rusty Crowe) trying to find the remains of his three sons who went and died on the shores of Gallipoli. So it’s not about re-prosecuting the war, or depicting a bunch of larrikins fighting and dying in splendidly heroic ways: it’s about a father wanting to fulfil his wife’s most heartfelt wish that her boys, if only in spirit, could be brought home to her.
Speaking of the mum, it’s funny to see Jacqueline MacKenzie and Russell Crowe in the same scene/film again. Haven’t seen them together since Romper Stomper, where they played very different roles indeed. Might have been a fairly awkward reunion, who knows. I’m sure they were both utter professionals about it.
They are grieving, grieving inconsolably as the flick begins. They continue the rituals they had when the boys were still kids, with mother saying the things she would say, the father reading stories from 1001 Arabian Nights, to a room containing three beds with no children in them.
Perhaps that scene could be said to be mawkish or sentimental. To me it was like a sledgehammer to the heart. It may not have been subtle, but it was tremendously sad.
Also, the choice of Arabian Nights, while it might seem a bit of a cliché itself, is actually quite an appropriate one. The overarching framing device of Arabian Nights is that the person telling all these stories, Scheherazade, is desperately trying to keep herself alive. By telling story after story she prevents her insane husband the Shah from executing her.
By holding on to the book he used to read to the boys when they still lived and breathed, he is keeping them alive.
Did you ever imagine you’d get to see a film where the Turkish side of the Gallipoli conflict would be depicted? The Turks, in their trenches, gather for one final push to destroy the Australian, New Zealander and Brit invaders once and for all after months of slaughter.
And yet in their push they find their cowardly opponents have fled.
The Turks are lead by a mournful but compassionate Major called Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), who has seen many of his underlings die at the hands and bayonets of their barbarous invaders, but longs both for an end to the war and for some quality moustache wax after going so long without.
Four years later, the war is well and truly over (well, World War I is at least), the Ottoman Empire is no more, and the Brits control the region. The British officers in this flick are depicted as the true enemy. Not militarily, but in terms of being against basic decency and compassion. When Joshua (Crowe) sets out on his search for his sons’ bones, Brit officers speak to him in such a peremptory and unfeeling manner that you wish the phone-throwing Crowe of old would seize them by their epaulettes and shake them until they develop a human feeling or their teeth fall out.
It’s funny, to think of villains in a flick that’s so assiduous about being even handed about ‘that’ infamous battle. There are small scale petty bureaucrats who impede Joshua, a boorish brother-in-law of one of the main characters (Steve Bastoni, that famous Turk), there are sympathetic Australian army officers who try to dissuade him yet understand where he’s coming from. Funniest, for me, though, is the fact that during the curiously narrow timeframe that the flick concerns itself with, the Big Bad in this flick ultimately ends up being the murderous Greek Army wanting revenge for 400 years of Ottoman occupation and oppression.
Hilarious, in a way.
It’s true that outside of Australian stories about Gallipoli, no-one else in the world, including the Turks, really give a damn about Turkey or that era. Istanbul’s a beautiful city, but rarely does anything about the place really poke through international consciousness with that time or place. Only Australians seem to be obsessed with it. It’s the emphasis on the personal element (a grieving father motivated by the desire to somehow make things right) rather than the ‘bigger’ story of who did what to whom and what right did they have etc that really makes this an enjoyable flick.
Also, where a father would reasonably (though unfairly, since the Anzacs were the invaders, you could say) want ‘revenge’ on those who took his sons away from him, he’s not really motivated by that. He does get his blood up at a certain point, but the Turks are not the villains here. It’s pointed out several times that while he may have lost three sons at Lone Pine, and the Australians lost 2,000 of their brothers, the Turks, or at least Major Hasan lost 7,000 of his men in the same conflict.
We watch as the men designated to work for the war memorial / graves preservation detail go about their solemn work, but we also hear a cogent argument against what Joshua wants to achieve, in that while he may have promised his wife that he would see ‘the boys’ buried in consecrated ground, as Lt Colonel Hughes (Jai Courtney) points out, what ground could be more holy than that which 9,000 men gave their lives for King, Kaiser and Country?
Don’t mistake that for patriotic sentiment. Mostly the flick avoids any of that jingoistic claptrap (though it does make you hate the Brits and possibly the Greeks). More so than the Major and his underlings harbouring hatred towards the Australians, the Turks are also shown as potentially wanting to ‘go’ on a journey of forgiveness in the person of Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), whose husband died in the same vaunted conflict, and who regards Joshua as a racial representative of everything she hates.
It would be unfair to describe the transition there as anything other than predictable, and beyond cliché, in that not only does the grieving widow warm to the grieving father through grief and shared moments of mutual kindness, but it leads to an ending I found enjoyable yet unlikely. I still enjoyed these aspects, because, after all, what exemplifies the letting go of racial / nationalistic hatreds more than two people from cultures that hate each other eventually not hating each other as much?
It’s a bit comical to me that the role of a Turkish grieving widow is played by that famous Turkish actress Russia’s Own Olga Kurylenko. I haven’t enjoyed her work in pretty much anything else I’ve seen her in, but I thought she put in an enjoyable performance. The film takes the time to present us with the dilemmas she faces without having to (mostly) spell them out in obvious, dialogue heavy ways.
She has some brat as well, but his purpose in the story is just to gaze up lovingly at Crowe and wish desperately for the man to become his new father figure.
The last section of the flick, which amps up the ‘action’ feel of proceedings far from the battlefields of yesterday, has our heroes under siege from Greek soldiers led by a black wearing general who looks like an even angrier Yosemite Sam (Robert Mammone). This bit, while quite harrowing, coupled with everything else that’s going on, manages to make the Greeks look like the monsters they doubtless were.
It’s funny to me, considering the flick ends on a happy, uplifting note. Artfully, the wise producers decide to end the flick just before the Turks rise up and exterminate oh so many Greeks, Armenians and Miscellaneous non-Turks in their desire for a homeland free of European influence and Greek vengeance. It’s just that, you know, millions of people died and / or were forcibly deported?
Movies need happy endings, though, and the makers of this flick found a lot of ways to get, perhaps earn that happy ending. Crowe is solid throughout (acting-wise), and has decent chemistry with both Ayshe and her son (despite the massive age difference). I’m not so sure about the direction and editing (there are some strange transition scenes, where you’re wondering where the hell the scene ‘is’ and how they got there and why, questions you should rarely have to ask). There’s also a bizarre Megan Gale cameo, playing a silent Turkish Muslim woman putting repressive clothing on the main female character(?) Not sure I got that bit, or the necessity of putting her in the flick at all (other than as a favour).
Mostly they do a good job of making bits of Australia look like Turkey and vice versa. I couldn’t tell you how much of the flick was actually filmed in Turkey, and that’s a good thing. A war flick that’s not about the war, and a film titled “The Water Diviner” that tells us virtually nothing about water divining.
But that’s okay. Rusty’s got our back.
7 times Crowe still manages to craft a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in Gladiator just to show that he still can out of 10
“This is the Ottoman Empire, there is no such a thing as before the war here. But in another life I was an architect.” – architects are just the worst, aren’t they? – The Water Diviner