The Water Diviner
Directed by Russell Crowe
On April 25th, 1915, Allied forces landed at Gallipoli in modern day Turkey. One hundred years later, “The Water Diviner” tells the story of an Australian farmer who, after World War I, travels to the site of the battle to find the bodies of his sons who fought there. Although April 25th is still celebrated in Australia and New Zealand as ANZAC Day, in association with the Gallipoli landing and the two countries’ involvement and shared spirit, the film opened months earlier in those countries, allowing time for a theatrical run before television distribution this same week.
This timing has been criticized as the US opening date of April 24th also coincides with the date associated with the start of events leading to what is referred to by some as the Armenian Genocide, one day earlier. However, the film is focused on how events at Gallipoli affected one family and the people they encountered. And while it makes no clear reference to the exodus and slaughter of Armenians, it also makes little other reference to the politics and events of the time, beyond those directly affecting the characters depicted, primarily one Australian man who has very little understanding of either the place or the people. As such, the criticism seems unwarranted as the film doesn’t appear to be denying those events but, rather, focusing on other events taking place in the same place at the same time. There are many stories and films about WWII that don’t directly reference the holocaust without being accused of suppressing its history – they’re simply about other unique events and people.
In “The Water Diviner,” Russell Crowe directs himself as Joshua Connor, the farmer and father to three sons, all of whom enlisted and participated in the Gallipoli landing and subsequent land battle. It’s the kind of high profile celebrity dual role that tends to draw criticism or extra commentary when the film, with any other director, probably wouldn’t draw that much attention for its direction. It’s competent but not especially remarkable, perhaps lacking subtlety, and with the common problem of films that attempt to depict war within limited flashback sequences, in that it’s hard to ever fully capture the sheer scale and atrocity of the combat.
And that’s probably the film’s greatest flaw – the relative lack of historical context. Not with regards to other events, such as the slaughter of Armenians, but even with respect to the film’s central story. It may play better in Australia and New Zealand, where events at Gallipoli are better remembered, but for other audiences it felt like it needed more background than the few onscreen historical snippets of information. This was a drawn out war within a war, lasting over eight months, and costing over 110,000 lives and more than twice as many wounded, before the allied forces withdrew from the peninsular they had failed to capture.
While watching it, I was reminded of the recent film “The Railway Man,” about a British soldier’s post-traumatic stress related to his time as a prisoner of war, after being held by the Japanese in WWII. It was a film that almost required a pre-screening of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to fully appreciate it. “The Water Diviner” feels like it would benefit similarly by being the second in a double-feature, following 1981’s “Gallipoli.”
That said, it’s not a bad film, just one that is helped by at least some prior knowledge of that chapter in history, as well as its continued significance in some countries. Crowe is good as Connor, alongside several strong supporting performances. There’s a little too much distraction in an associated plotline involving a mother and son Connor meets – feeling like an attempt to broaden the appeal of an otherwise pretty grim tale. But, overall, it’s a fairly average film that adds to the library of films that manage to reconsider the aftermath of wars through the eyes of people on both sides of the conflict.
The Age of Adaline
Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
My preferred major release for this week – and probably the major competition in many date night disputes – is “The Age of Adaline.” Blake Lively plays a young woman who, in the course of an accident, is rendered incapable of aging and who then spends several decades dealing with the consequences of remaining physically unchanged.
It’s another of those inherently intriguing premises that’s potentially a great conversation starter: What would you do if your appearance never changed or if you encountered somebody years later who had aged while you hadn’t – and who remembered you?
In “The Age of Adaline,” Lively’s Adaline Bowman first starts to hide her identity when government officials begin to take notice, and she continues to move around, using new names and homes every decade. As with other stories about immortality (or characters such as vampires), she watches those around her age (her daughter is played by Ellen Burstyn) and die and for that reason she’s reluctant to enter into new, committed relationships. This is quite effectively represented in the story by something as simple as her relationship with her pet dog(s).
The role of Adaline Bowman was, reportedly, first turned down by Natalie Portman, with Katherine Heigl later attached to the project. And while either of those actresses might have done well with the role, Blake Lively seems so well suited to it that it’s hard to imagine the film working any better in anybody else’s hands. She manages very successfully to convey the impression of a woman repeatedly finding her place in the world, and keeping up with technology, while also maintaining an air of a time long since past and a level of life experience far beyond her appearance.
It’s a pleasant film that’s likely to appeal to many people but it’s not without its frustrations. There’s an unnecessarily pedantic attempt to explain the circumstances of Adaline’s condition in a manner that avoids anything of a magical or supernatural nature, and it just seemed like it could have been avoided or left unsaid. In what might seem like a very odd comparison, it felt as out of place as the attempt in “The Phantom Menace” to suddenly and scientifically explain ‘The Force’ in the “Star Wars” universe. Some things are better left to the imagination.
But that’s a relatively minor peeve in what is otherwise a pleasant, light film built around an effective central performance.
Written and Directed by Alex Garland
Better than either of those films is “Ex Machina,” a story about a computer coder who’s taken away from his regular workplace by his reclusive employer, to test the artificial intelligence of a robot he’s built. It’s an adapted application of the Turing Test, named for Alan Turing (part of whose story was told in the recent “The Imitation Game”), in which an observer tries to determine if a machine with artificial intelligence is indistinguishable from a human participant in conversations.
The coder, Caleb, is played by Dohmnall Gleeson and his boss, Nathan, is the rapidly ascending Oscar Isaac. Nathan is a genius of extraordinary wealth, who created a Google-like search engine at the age of 13 and who now lives on a private estate so vast that, when Caleb asks when they will arrive at the estate, the helicopter pilot flying him in replies “We’ve been flying over it for the last two hours.”
What follows is a somewhat claustrophobic story set entirely in Nathan’s almost bunker-like home, as Nathan introduces Caleb to Ava (Alicia Vikander), his creation, and Caleb interrogates her/it. It’s a primarily dialog-driven story that could quite easily be reproduced in a minimalistic stage setting, with the only other character being Nathan’s mysterious and silent assistant Kyoko.
It’s also quite similar, in several respects, to the 2011 film “Eva” in which Daniel Brühl plays an equally brilliant (compared to Nathan) builder of robots who is called back to his former institution to program a more effective artificial intelligence. The two films also provide an interesting comparison, for both filmmakers and film fans, of how and when special effects are used to depict such subject matter. In “Eva,” for example, the process of capturing thought processes and building a mind is shown with quite complex holograms manipulated by the designer. In “Ex Machina,” the robot is more complex in appearance but the mind-designing process is simply a wall covered in Post-It notes. And both films could have been made with little or no special effects at all.
“Ex Machina” is an effective story of mind games and manipulation as we watch, primarily, three characters play with the others’ beliefs and emotions. Caleb is the outsider, entering Nathan and Ava’s strange world, there to perform a specific task. But the role and the goal become complicated as he gets to know them both better. It’s a good film, with consistently excellent performances, and one that probably would have impressed me even more if I hadn’t just seen “Eva” within the last few months.
Also opening is “Little Boy,” about the younger son of a father who enlists in WWII, leaving his family to cope in their small Californian coast town. It’s a story with strong elements related to religious faith although, as seen through the eyes of such a small child, it isn’t as religious as it would be with an adult central character. Young Pepper believes in what Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson) tells him (and at first it’s mostly to keep his spirits up) but no more than he believes in his comic book hero Ben Eagle. It’s an overtly cute story that manages to mash together faith, bullying, anti-Japanese-American bigotry, and hope by doing so through countless close-ups (and seemingly as many wardrobe changes) for the diminutive young lead actor Jakob Salvati – in a role that might have gone to Jonathan Lipnicki (“Jerry Maguire,” Stuart Little”) had it been made 15-20 years ago, or Peter Billingsley (“A Christmas Story”) a decade before that. The element it does the poorest job of incorporating is comedy and the most awkward moments are those between the mismatched talents of Emily Watson and Kevin James as, respectively, Pepper’s Mom and the town doctor who is eager to fill in for her missing husband. Overall, it’s a messy amalgam of parts but will likely appeal to families looking for faith-based content for young children.