Witnessed at the 11th Dubai International Film Festival
International Premiere: The Cinema of the World Gala Screening
Written by Ankit Ojha
What to Expect
Russell Crowe’s been known for his absolute dynamism in performance since quite a long time, might I say. From the days of the critically acclaimed The Insider and L. A. Confidential all the way to the towering performances in Les Miserables and Noah, he’s strung along a whole set of absolutely versatile roles in his repertoire. And now, the potential audience of his new venture The Water Diviner are looking at yet another feather in his cap.
That of a director.
Here I was, on the second day of the 11th Dubai International Film Festival, finally attending a film I’d been anticipating since I had a whiff of its news. Here I was. A human being with a lot of neutrality towards period films as a whole. Waiting with almost-impatience for a period film to begin.
Here I was.
But let’s not digress. Let’s come back to what’s a viewer to expect from solely the credits of the film. Apart from having an absolutely stellar cast of Crowe, Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) and Jai Courtney (Divergent), the movie also seems to have an absolutely versatile set of Turkish performers in the form of Yilmaz Erdogan (Kelebeğin Rüyası; also director) and Cem Yilmaz (Hokkabaz) among others. Of course, there’s a certain skepticism that does set in when you realize that writers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios were mainly television proficient.
Of course, once you’ve watched the trailer of the film, most of that minuscule skepticism almost decides to erase itself away.
What’s it About?
Four years after the fateful battle of Gallipoli on the 7th of December, 1915, Connor (Crowe; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) sets out to Turkey to find his three sons lost in the war. Through it all, he witnesses incessant loss and hurdle-after-hurdle, but little does he know that he’d find something he never expected before.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Celebrated editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), in his book In the Blink of an Eye, has stated that he observes “a list of six criteria for what makes a good cut”. What, in this list, prioritizes itself more than anything else – even the story of the film – is emotion, which, according to him, should comprise of (at the very least) 51% of the film editing process. Not that the list necessarily needs to follow itself by exactly those standards, but that’s something that I, throughout the little work that I’ve done in the assignments I’ve been getting in my life, have learnt – through mistakes I’ve made or otherwise – to embrace in order to give my work some substance.
But that’s not why I’m writing this. The reason I wanted to highlight this apparently digressive piece of information was because I wanted to highlight the absolutely brilliant edit that’s been performed to the film. Matt Villa’s (The Great Gatsby) dramatic cuts only make for how beautifully he’s embodied emotion to rage forward in the film. There’s a certain L-Cut made somewhere at the beginning of the film that dramatically echoes the feelings of a person still reeling from the pain of loss. It’s beautiful how Villa has used a lot of editing techniques as weapons more than as damage-controlling gimmicks.
Enter the team of Crowe, Knight and Anastasios, who’ve generated and executed content that doesn’t manipulate you to take sides. Sure, there’s been the 2012 Turkish Canakkale 1915, but what’s to be noticed here is the sensitivity with which the Turkish side has been portrayed – at least from the eyes of this outsider-to-both – despite being an Australian film, which could easily have fallen into the trap of one-sided political jingoism. Crowe, in his first directorial venture, shows a lot of promise, as he’s able to extract but beautifully subdued performances off the actors of this film. His collaborative vision driving the well-written screenplay comes to fruition through the absolutely dynamic, multi-layered agendas of its various characters fleshed out fairly well. And believe you me, handling multiple threads is a risk that many have taken and failed miserably at.
Viewers may have occasional gripes with the repetition of certain flashbacks. If one, however, looks through the usage and understands the significance of it all, an ultimately engaging pattern will be found. Crowe’s character arc also allows for the dramatic usage of faith in copious amounts, despite it having had potential to fall like a pack of cards to its own doom. What will bother some viewers, however, is the slightly inconsistent tone of the visual effects used. There’s a certain action set-piece where a certain (apparent) 3D model seems quite obviously present, looking quite different from the rest of the frames the object exists in. Oh, and there’s also the rather endearing conclusion that a few might find cheesy. But here’s a plea: just go with the flow. You have a chance of possibly finding what I found – that hint of subtle emotional dexterity behind the predictable arc that surprised me.
What makes up majorly for these rather minuscule flaws is the stunning cinematographic execution of Andrew Lesnie (the entire middle earth franchise consisting of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), which supports dramatic framing of quite a few shots, be it the usage of various atmospheric elements in wide-angle shots or the dramatic close-ups that surround the film’s various moments. It quite helps that the dynamic production design – sometimes endearing and quaint, sometimes dusty and raw – of the movie exists the way it does. Add in the emotional elevation of the commendable sound design and David Hirschfelder’s (Sliding Doors) lilting score, and you’re in for an unforgettable experience that will definitely tag along long after the credits have rolled and you’ve stepped out of the screens.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Russell Crowe, both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, is in top form. Surpringly because, having self-directed himself, he could have laxed upon himself and his character. Unsurprisingly because we’ve always known throughout his career of what a terrific performer he’s been. Here, he delivers his role with a dazzling amount of sensitivity and emotional relevance. The old world charm allows us as viewers to root for his character Connor throughout his strenuous journey, and Crowe is majorly responsible for how the viewers would feel toward him through the movie’s runtime. Jai Courtney’s finally able to deliver a respectable performance after a host of absolute one-notes in the form of Jack Reacher, Divergent and A Good Day to Die Hard. This movie is able to perfectly exploit (at the very least) a glimpse of what he can give to cinema if given meatier roles. Olga Kurylenko exudes charm, grace and that dash of strength and vulnerability – just what was required of the role. Yilmaz Erdogan’s subdued performance rocks his Hassan bey. And then there’s the presence of Cem Yilmaz What a talent. Seriousness on this side of it all, and spurts of humor on the other; he balances them just perfectly. Ryan Corr (Not Suitable for Children) has an arresting presence in the role he’s been given. The amount of raw emotion he’s able to pull off will be enough to send chills down your spine. Others are equally efficient.
This one’s a hearty yes.
Period dramas are difficult to create, and oft-times the makers fall into the trap of stereotypes the movies are now known for. Crowe, however, delivers a film that has raw, ravaging emotion and brilliant performances that ably support the commendable screenwriting. Add to it some of (possibly) the best editing I’ve seen this year in any film, and you’ve got yourself an “emotionally compelling” experience that will stay in your mind and heart long after the film’s over and done with physically.
Star Rating: 4 / 5
If you’re in the United Arab Emirates, then do manage to catch the film as it releases on the 25th of December all over the country, a day prior to the public Australia, New Zealand and Turkey releases of the film (i.e., the 26th of December). The movie will grace its presence in the United Kingdom on the 3rd of April, 2015, and in India the United States (over a limited release) on the 24th of April, 2015.