Overview: Russell Crowe’s directorial debut finds himself the subdued star of a sweeping World War I epic as Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer whose three sons have not returned home from the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. After losing his wife four years later to the depression and madness this loss has wrought, he travels to Turkey to find his sons and bring them home. Warner Bros.; 2014 (Australia); Rated R; 111 minutes.
Style and Substance: Crowe has worked with some of the most talented and dynamic directors in the business, and some of those sensibilities have certainly rubbed off on him over time. The film is beautifully shot. Crowe has an undeniable understanding of color, composition, and framing. That said, I’d argue that for the tale he is telling, less may have been more. There are moments of artistic expression that work to convey a mood and propel the story, and then there are others that seem random, extraneous, and unnecessary. Were they distractions? Not really. But I do think the film worked best when Crowe wasn’t trying quite as hard to dazzle. The film is already larger than life — a melodrama that spans continents and time, and which already benefits from its gorgeous production design and settings. So those aerial shots over Connor, whether mid-chase through vibrant Turkish marketplaces or walking through or seated in similarly ornate buildings, don’t really contribute much. To me, they seemed to serve as nothing more than stylistic self-indulgences for Crowe as a first-time director showing off a bit.
Time and Place: The film resonated with Australian critics and audiences because of the proud and pained history the film recalls — the Battle of Gallipoli, which left many dead and countless more deemed missing, and the film is dedicated to those people. The film won’t carry the same cultural weight here in America, unfortunately, so we as viewers might have to put in a little bit of extra work to understand that context on any similar level. One thing that makes this somewhat challenging is Crowe’s conception of time in the film, specifically the order in which he presents events. The film opens with the final fight, when troops have retreated from Gallipoli. It then transports us to Australia, four years later. We do not meet the sons that motivate the movie, until a series of oddly placed flashbacks occur, to the boys’ childhoods for just one brief but charming scene, and to the battleground– for many agonizing scenes. Even the frequent use of the gun sound effect to indicate the memory of the battle went from being an effective, tried and true convention, to being an overused and annoying trope pretty quickly. I feared that I’d grow desensitized even further; we’re meant to care about the sons because we care about Joshua as a grieving, guilt-ridden, lonely, and determined father, but we are not really given much time or exposure to get to know the sons themselves. In a way, they could stand in for any man’s sons, and I think that was sort of the point, maybe. The only flashback that was truly emotionally effective for me was a continuation of one that we see numerous times already up until that point; in this one, we’re given a heart-wrenching remembrance of what truly happened on that fateful night in 1915.
Smarmy Subplot, Thrilling Saga: The film almost suffers also from a romantic subplot, between Connor and Ayshe, the beautiful woman that owns the hotel he is staying at in Istanbul. I didn’t really have a problem with this subplot, as smarmy as it is (especially in the film’s hopeful verging on cheesy ending). That said, I think the film works best when Connor is a man on a mission, bonding with sympathetic Turks and being thwarted by caricature British soldiers and brutish Greek armies. The third act of the film retains the most focus and is thus the most enjoyable; it doesn’t get bogged down by frills or inauthentic sentimentality. It is the portion of the film in which the story being told is simple, direct, and 100% intimate. The film overall just seems to waver ever so slightly here and there, trying to cover too much and trying to be too much. As a love story between Connor and Ayshe, it’s half-hearted but pleasant enough. As a familial, paternal love story about a father trying to find his sons, it works far better. And, as a story about the evils and tragedies of war, it’s often subtle but affecting — and it works best when the war is not shown to us in hazy flashback, but rather when echoes of war are still palpable, ratcheting the stakes higher and engaging us more intently.
Consensus: Crowe’s directorial debut is a valiant attempt, literally — it’s honorable and daring, but could have benefited from a more streamlined, less idiosyncratically artistic approach. He tells a compelling story in a compelling way, that threatens to be muddled by flashbacks, subplot and style. When it is at its most exciting and when it is at its most intimate, though, is when the film finally feels like a balanced text, full of beauty, tragedy, and bravado.