The Water Diviner was released last year in Australia where it won several awards from Australia's version of the Oscars. It's only getting a limited release in the United States, art house theaters but mostly on IMAX screens. From what I gathered, the movie wasn't shot using IMAX cameras or on 70 mm film, which is the large format that is needed to fill the huge 5 to 7-story canvas. As such, the images of this movie didn't take up the entire IMAX screen of the theater I attended. Therefore, it isn't the total immersive experience that is the hallmark and promise of IMAX.
The last time I went to see a narrative feature in IMAX was Batman Begins (2005). British filmmaker Christopher Nolan directed that blockbuster and Nolan is the IMAX poster-boy because he actually shoots his films using IMAX cameras and in that large format. Therefore, Nolan achieves that immersive experience. It also helps if you watch an IMAX film on the side of a dome. I saw Batman Begins at the IMAX in King of Prussia, which was a mostly flat screen. There's some curvature but not as much as on the side of a dome. I've seen amazing nature documentaries at the IMAX in the Franklin Institute, which is a dome, large and curved, making it totally immersive and great.
I saw this movie at the IMAX in the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, which wasn't necessary at all. The booming speakers, which also help to immerse, only rattled and annoyed me initially. If it wasn't for the fact that the story and the performances both intrigued and moved me, then I might have walked out on this film early.
Oscar-winner Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator) stars as Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer who makes his living digging wells and providing people with water. The second scene of the movie, which introduces Joshua, is a scene where Joshua takes his dog out into what looks like a desert and he finds the perfect spot to start shoveling underground. As he digs, he constructs the mechanics of a well and without a single word shows us the basics of modern plumbing.
This movie is not about Joshua performing his job or exploring his profession. In fact, the movie begins not with Joshua but with the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. The history and context are never made explicit. We are simply thrust into the trenches with the Turkish forces under fire. It's not that long after we learn that the Turkish army was victorious in Gallipoli, but this is a war movie that isn't about the bullets and the bombs as they're being thrown. This is a war movie about the aftermath, cleaning up the carnage and facing the consequences.
Most films about war will show death and destruction, often leaving us with visuals of battlefields with scattered dead or mutilated bodies all over. Most films about war will have the cliche moment of a soldier risking his life to rescue an injured comrade in no man's land, but with the exception of certain films like Glory (1989) or even non-war movies like Sunshine Cleaning (2009), none or very few films have dealt with what happens to the battlefield after the fighting has finally stopped.
Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher and A Good Day to Die Hard) plays Lt. Colonel Hughes, an Australian military officer who is the head of the army unit that is responsible for identifying the dead bodies and then burying them or bringing them home to Australia from Gallipoli, the area in what is now the Republic of Turkey. He's a tough but very compassionate man handling something that is literally grave.
It's through Hughes we learn that Australian forces were a large part of the Battle of Gallipoli. In fact, the combined Australia and New Zealand Army Corps is referred to by the acronym, ANZAC, and those forces were so significant in that battle that the beach were those soldiers landed by boat is nicknamed "Anzac Cove."
The Oscar-winning cinematographer for this film was Andrew Lesnie who just died the Monday after this, his final film opened in the U.S. I wasn't too impressed with the visuals but there were some great images and camera-moves here. This might be a spoiler, but the first of which in the film is the reveal that Joshua had three adult sons whom all three went to fight in Gallipoli and neither three came back.
Lesnie starts with a close-up shot of Joshua's wife and mother of the three boys after she's told Joshua to read the boys a bed-time story and the camera dollies backward from the kitchen where Joshua's wife is sitting into the bedroom where Joshua is sitting reading the bed-time story Arabian Nights. As the camera dollies backward, it also slowly zooms out to a wide-shot showing that Joshua is reading to three empty beds. It's a great piece of cinematography.
There weren't any other visuals that really smacked me the way that bed-time story shot did. Most of the camerawork is pretty straight-forward, which is actually not a criticism in that the cinematography more allows focus to be maintained on the actors and their performances, especially during really emotional gut-punches. There is a sequence that stands out involving a sand storm. It's a better sequence than the one in Clint Eastwood's American Sniper but still not as good as the one in Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. The only other visual that I would consider outstanding are the shots inside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, if only because western and especially American audiences rarely get awe-inspiring shots inside a Muslim place of worship.
And that is really why this movie shines. Joshua travels to Turkey to join Hughes' unit to find the bodies of his three lost sons. Through this journey, first-time feature director Russell Crowe also takes us into a mosque and also takes into Muslim country, not in celebration or condemnation but with honesty and respect. We're also led into Turkish culture. We experience deeply cultural things like family-honor and arranged marriages, as well as touchstones like Turkish baths, Turkish coffee and Whirling Dervishes.
Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace and Oblivion) co-stars as Ayshe, the Turkish wife and mother who runs a hotel in Istanbul where Joshua stays. Her husband and father of her child was also lost in Gallipoli. It's through her that Joshua is immersed in Ottoman culture and life in terms of the home or domestic side. Yilmaz Erdogan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) also co-stars as Major Hasan, a soldier and leader during the Battle of Gallipoli. It's through Hasan that Joshua is immersed in terms of the military side.
What makes this a great war movie is a line from Hughes about Hasan, which whether one is speaking about this World War I fight, exactly 100 years ago as of April 25, or whether one is speaking about conflicts currently occurring in 2015, it's totally applicable and relevant. What's remarkable is that Hughes and Hasan are even working together at all. Their two sides were just recently trying to kill each other and now the two are side-by-side doing the necessary chore of burying fallen soldiers. Instead of throwing blame or holding a grudge, or standing on some kind of moral high ground, Hughes says, "I don't know if I forgive any of us."
Intense and brutal war scenes are depicted in harrowing fashion. Crowe is mostly in the point-of-view of Joshua's three sons who fought together in Gallipoli. Of course, we're meant to feel for them and be on their sides. However, the film, written by Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight, never lets us forget that there were casualties on both sides. It also allows us to empathize with both sides and understand both sides without judgment. At least, by the end, Joshua realizes as all sides should realize is that we're all culpable and all bear some responsibility, and acknowledging that is important.
I'm aware that Andrew O'Heir, writing for Salon, recently criticized this film for its denial or ignorance of the Armenian genocide, which occurred in Turkey during this time, and I take his criticisms to heart. To me, the overall message of the film is one of overall empathy and compassion. It may have this glaring omission to those with more information about the historical specifics, but the spirit of that message is what saves it.
The film becomes a bit of an action film in its final third. Given the look of Crowe, how he's dressed, a lot of that action, especially a crazy sequence on board a train, makes it feel like Crowe's previous film, the western remake, 3:10 to Yuma (2007). I'm typically not a fan of remakes or westerns, but that film felt like an excellent exception to a lot of my rules. This film gave me that same feeling and more.
Five Stars out of Five. Rated R for war violence including some disturbing images. Running Time: 1 hr. and 51 mins.