Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Water Diviner (2014) - Movie Review

Every so often, an actor will step forward and decide that they want to become a director and make their own movie. This can sometimes lead to great things: Clint Eastwood has had a very prolific and critically-praised track record of directorial efforts over the last decade or so and Ben Affleck made a major comeback in Hollywood with films like The Town and Argo. However, it can also lead to rather disastrous things: William Shatner made a dog’s breakfast out of Star Trek V, Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights is one of his many cinematic punchlines, and the less said about the brain-melting confusion that is Crispin Glover’s What Is It?, the better. Today’s film is the directorial debut of love-him-or-hate-him actor Russell Crowe.

The plot: In the wake of the Battle of Gallipoli, Connor (Russell Crowe) travels to Turkey in order to locate his sons who were ANZAC soldiers. When he discovers that one of them may still be alive, he clings onto hope and tries to locate him in the midst of open hostilities between the Turks, the English and the Greeks.

There were three warning signs that this film was going to be bad: One, it stars Jai Courtney, a man who is a sentient red flag for bad movies at this rate; two, it’s a theatrical release that lists Channel Seven Australia as one of its production companies; three, the only one of its two writers with previous credits, Andrew Knight, is largely known for comedic works, mostly associated with the D Generation like Fast Forward and Full Frontal.

The first sign turned out to be a rather weird high point, because Jai Courtney is one of the few actors in this movie that looks like he’s even trying. I may bash Jai’s lousy skills at picking decent scripts, but his acting is not being brought into question here in any way. Special props should also be given to Yilmaz Erdogan as Major Hasan, who does a good job with his rather layered character as a Turkish soldier who helps Connor find his sons, Ryan Corr as one of Connor’s sons Arthur, who is a keystone in the most emotional scene of the film, and Jacqueline McKenzie as Connor’s wife Eliza, who gives a performance with more depth to it in her minimal time on screen than most of the others do in the entire movie. Everyone else, Crowe included, comes across as either broadly drawn, cold, texting in their performances, or all of the above in a few rare cases. Crowe shows the kind of blandness that he has gotten a bad reputation for giving, Dylan Georgiades as Orhan is annoying in that way that only awkward child actors can manage and Dan Wyllie plays the most stereotypical British army officer I’ve ever seen outside of a proper comedy.

The second sign results in a film that looks unbelievably cheap. For a start, the sound mixing is off by miles with this weird running motif of isolating a single diegetic sound and playing just that in some scenes, even in places where it doesn’t feel right to do so like when a scene of Russell Crowe walking into the distance has the sound of shovelling dirt into his wife’s grave played over it and nothing else. Sure, the idea could have worked but the execution left a lot to be desired. We also get a lot of random slow-mo shots, in one case for only a literal second of screen time, with no narrative reason or point. It's almost as if the film itself knows how slap shod it is, considering how often this film will suddenly start a fight scene with Connor and whatever soldiers are in his way; sure, it's a nice reprieve from the nothing that is the majority of the film, but it's distracting and more than a little jarring with how out-of-nowhere it gets before too long.

However, as annoying as all these are, they are frankly small potatoes compared to one of the biggest sins you can commit in a theatrically released film: Recycling footage. Whenever this film shows scenes set during the Battle of Gallipoli, most of it is just the same shots shown each time as if this was a dodgy straight-to-DVD action movie. Far as I’m concerned, no matter how small your production and/or budget, that is just plain unacceptable for an audience paying movie ticket prices.

The third sign resulted not so much in a film that felt more like an awkward comedy than a drama, as one would expect, but rather a film that is badly written in many other ways. We have a plot that largely meanders around its supposed crux of Connor finding his sons dead or alive, and that’s assuming that that is even the intent of the film in the first place. The trailer for this movie makes it look like some kind of mystery/suspense thriller involving Connor finding some kind of secret about the one son that he couldn’t find the remains of. What we actually get is nowhere near that enticing: Rather, the story has maybe enough plot for a 45 minute TV show episode (Fitting, given writer Andrew Knight’s primary experience in television) but is padded out with what are essentially plot roadblocks. The main thing that lengthens this film is that there are a handful of people who won’t let Connor go to where he needs to go for various and occasionally baffling reasons; if they weren’t there, this would probably run long enough to be a Tropfest entry if that.

To add to this, there is something seriously bizarre concerning Connor as a character that is never really given notice. At first glance, having a main character who is a water diviner sounds off because, quite frankly, water divining is right up there with phrenology and medical leeches in terms of scientific accuracy, but it gets even weirder the longer it carries on. The character in-film admits that his water divining doesn’t always work, but then we get several dream sequences peppered throughout that seem to lead Connor to where he needs to be in the plot. If they came right out and said that he had something mystical about him then fine (Hell, it might have actually opened the way for more dramatic opportunities) but instead we’re only left with a general inkling that Russell Crowe might be a wizard.

However, for all the crap I give this film, it does have one good thing going for it throughout: The Turks. Connor’s relationship with Hasan makes for the only genuine regular interaction between characters in this film and the underlying theme of how badly the battle affected the Turks is pretty bold for a film of this kind. We are shown that, in contrast to Connor’s desire to find his sons, that the Turkish army suffered heavy casualties as well and yet the ANZACs that now occupy their country aren’t lifting a finger to find their remains on the battlefield. There’s also an interesting motif of how, throughout the film, the Turks help Connor out the most: The English just want him gone, the ANZACs are ineffective and the Greeks just try to kill him. Given how patriotic we can get when it comes to the ANZACs, it's an exceptionally bold move to show the Turks as evenhandedly as they did here and, in the hands of a far better director, could've potentially made for a seriously powerful and necessary look at Australian racial sensitivities connected to Gallipoli. Oh well.

All in all, this is a shocker. Russell Crowe joins the Hollywood shit list of actors who should never be given the director’s chair again with a debut that has a cast that is half phoning it in and half doing their best with the little that they’re given, a production crew that cuts corners like they’re trying to make a paper snowflake on film and a script that needed major doctoring before it could even pass for a TV episode.

1 comment:

  1. A good movie, excellent acting. But really, really bad Turkish propaganda. Turks were never the victims.