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Russell Crowe’s Water Diviner tries to question history, but misses the mark

Star, director, hero. Entertainment One

April 2015 marks the centenary of the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign, the failed invasion of modern-day Turkey by British and French imperial forces. Remembered in Britain mainly for the failings of Winston Churchill, Gallipoli has enormous significance in Australian national culture. The death at Gallipoli of 8,000 members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) overshadows memory of other World War I battles. The campaign is remembered as helping forge a distinctly “Australian” (as opposed to British-colonial) identity.

Russell Crowe has capitalised on the centenary and its Australian importance with The Water Diviner, his recently released directorial debut (in which he also stars). Set in the war’s immediate aftermath, The Water Diviner follows Joshua Connor (Crowe) as he visits Turkey attempting to locate his three sons, all killed or missing-in-action at Gallipoli.

Cinema has transmitted knowledge about history since the medium’s late 19th-century origins. Films have long played a role in romanticising national myths and landmark events – the Hollywood Western and World War II combat movie being seminal examples.

Historical films are thus barometers of the collective stories that patriotic filmmakers and audiences like to tell about the past. One consequence is that they often elicit commentary from historians like me.

Taking the helm. Entertainment One.

A standard academic response is to dismiss historical films as hackneyed or inaccurate. More thoughtful historians – foremost Robert A Rosenstone – take a different stance, viewing cinema as a legitimate and potentially liberating medium for “doing history”.

So how does Crowe do?

Divining the Anzac spirit

Joshua is – as with the central character in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) – the Australian archetype. A gruff bushman with an elemental appreciation of the outback (the film’s title refers his ability to source groundwater), he is even seen with a cricket bat several times. Joshua’s “Anzac spirit” is defined against the clipped accents and officiousness of British (English) officers who repeatedly obstruct his endeavours throughout the film.

Some aspects of Turkish society are represented with similarly broad brushstrokes, risking Orientalist cliché. Images of whirling dervishes and allusions to polygamy recur. Extracts from The Arabian Nights – magic carpets and all – act as an important plot device.

So The Water Diviner is not sophisticated enough to completely pass muster in this regard. The film is heavy-handed at points and features one of the worst love subplots I’ve seen on screen in a while.

Reconciliation. Entertainment One

But Crowe does make concerted efforts to nuance the image of Australia’s onetime enemy – at least they’re not the faceless foes of the 1981 Gallipoli. It begins with a set-piece shot from the perspective of Ottoman troops at Gallipoli, and much of the ensuing drama revolves around a friendship forged between Joshua and their commander Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan).

Indeed, its emphasis on Gallipoli’s status in Turkish memory lends the film novelty – at least to an Anglophone audience. Several characters speak reverentially of Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic which was forged in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s post-war collapse. Mustafa Kemal’s reputation as a national hero was established by his military leadership at Gallipoli. And the action in the film’s (weaker) second half is propelled by Joshua’s journeying around Anatolia with Hasan and a band of Turkish nationalist troops and their resistance to British occupation in Istanbul.

Hit and miss

While showing a Turkish perspective distinguishes The Water Diviner from traditional Australian views of Gallipoli, it is also the most controversial aspect of its treatment of historical events.

The film has been a box office hit in Turkey and Australia. But it has attracted criticism from the Australian-Greek community for negatively portraying Greek soldiers pitted against Hasan’s nationalists in scenes dramatising the Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922). It has also been accused of eliding the Armenian genocide.

Certainly, the depiction of Greeks is extremely two-dimensional, though the second criticism has less validity from a purely chronological standpoint – the genocide is not immediately congruent to the post-war events played out onscreen. That said, considerations of this ilk doubtless factored into calculations about how The Water Diviner might play in Turkey, where labelling the Armenian atrocities “genocide” is deemed a crime against the nation.

So in effect, after laudably balancing prevailing Australian memories of Gallipoli (itself not without opposition from Anzac veterans groups) Crowe then undercut these admirable efforts with insufficient scrutiny of the contentious (official) Turkish version of the past he implicitly endorses.

The film ends up merely supplementing one nationalist history with another, leaving fundamental questions unaddressed. These issues of identity, ironically, are not entirely alien to Crowe: a New Zealander by birth, he claims to have twice had applications for Australian citizenship turned down.

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