War, or more specifically, the Great War of 1914-1918 has cost Mallee farmer Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe) a great deal.
In the space of one gruelling, horrifyingly bloody war at Gallipoli in 1915, at which the enduring ANZAC legend was born, he loses all three sons to enemy Turkish guns, a loss so monumental that it eventually costs him his wife Eliza, played with bitter torment by Jacqueline KcKenzie, who, unable to cope with the wiping out of her family ends her life one night in a dam, leaving Joshua with very little left to lose.
A devoted husband and father who feels he failed his boys by “filling their heads with thoughts of King and country” and letting them ride off to war unopposed, he determines that he will make it up to them by sailing to Turkey and bringing their bodies home to be buried in the “consecrated” ground of the local Catholic cemetery.
Crowe, who also makes his directorial debut with The Water Diviner, brings a quiet, though intense resolve to Connor, a man who overcomes obstacles in abundance once he reaches Turkey, mostly in the form of British military bureaucracy which has little time for one father’s seemingly quixotic sacred mission to reunite his family, even if it is in death.
While The Water Diviner does take some thematically disordant detours into the politics of Turkey at the time, its quest for a national homeland in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire it once ruled over and its continuing war with Greece – the script by Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight devotes as much time to the Turkish side of things as it does to the Australian, a remarkably balanced effort that only benefits the storytelling – it is at heart the quest by Connor to bring some closure to this terrible chapter in his life.
He is not, of course, without allies in his quest, most notably the owner of the hotel at which he finds accommodation in the most creative of ways, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) – her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) steals Joshua’s bag and leads him to the establishment – who initially is reluctant to have an Australian staying with her due to her husband’s death at Gallipoli (in Turkish Çanakkale Savasi).
And Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan) and his second-in-command Sergeant Jemal (Cem Yılmaz) who are drafted in to help the Imperial War Graves Unit’s work at Gallipoli and who first meet Joshua when he sneaks into the hallowed peninsula against British military orders.
The remarkable thing about The Water Diviner, is the lengths it goes to to demonstrate that war is hell no matter which side of the fighting line you are on.
Eschewing a one-sided antipodean view of the war, surely a temptation when you are talking about one of the definitive nation-building periods in Australian history, it underscores how much everyone lost in these close-up bloody battles, a sentiment echoed by Lt-Col Cecil Hilton (Jai Courtney), the officer in charge of the unit’s efforts on the peninsula, who fought at Gallipoli and knows far too tragically and intimately of which he speaks, who points out in one particularly emotionally-resonant scene with Joshua that the Australians and the Turkish have equal need of forgiveness.
This acknowledging of universal loss – Ayshe for instance with whom Joshua becomes close lots her husband at Gallipoli and grieves for him every bit as keenly as the Australian mourns his three boys – brings into sharp resolve a potent anti-war message that though writ large, never overwhelms the essential humanity at the heart of the story.
The Water Diviner, based on the tale of one father who actually ventured to Turkey in the aftermath of war to find his son, never loses sight of the fact that war costs everyone a great deal and that great lengths must be gone to to repair some of the damage if that is even possible.
In the case of Joshua, this quest is fuelled by his innate identity as a father, a man who faithfully read The Arabian Knights to his sons before they went to sleep, who galloped out in the midst of a furious dust storm to rescue them and who is not about to relinquish his vow to protect them at all costs, even if he does feel he failed to do that when it was most important.
Set against the romantically light-drenched surrounds of Instanbul and Gallipolo, rendered in the most exquisite of ways by Andrew Lesnie who gave Middle Earth such an extraordinarily arrestingly-beautiful look in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Water Diviner invokes the idea that it is possible to come back from even the most traumatic of events, even those catastrophically played out on the world stage.
It never seeks at any point to minimise the damage done, the resulting loss and grief, nor the near-insurmoutable task at hand to recover from all this devastation, but it does make it clear that love – in this instance we’re talking real, gritty, grounded love, not the Hallmark card variety which wouldn’t survive a gust of wind, let alone a war – and the commitment and dedication that flows from it can right wrongs and repair damage that may appear irreparable.
Granted the film does depart from its quiet studied honourable tale of one man’s quest to reunite his family with some patently odd Boys’ Own Adventure ventures into Turkey’s skirmishes with Greece after the war, and perhaps overplays the romance card a little too strongly – Ayshe would have been just as much of an ally without the romantic angle – but it is largely an immensely-moving homage (it is near impossible not to cry when you witness the three boys lying wounded or dead on the field of battle, far from home and family or when Joshua reads The Arabian Knights quietly at the graves of younger sons Henry and Edward) to the power of the human spirit to move on even when there is no readily apparent way forward.