For his directing debut, Russell Crowe tells a story so compelling that it almost obscures the rather clunky filmmaking. Based on the hint of a true story, the events are fascinating, moving and often thrilling, with some strikingly well-staged sequences along the way. But the earnest tone is sometimes distracting, as is an unnecessary romantic subplot that makes the whole movie feel like pure fiction.
It opens in 1919 Australia, where Connor (Crowe) is grieving the loss of his three sons in the 1915 battle of Gallipoli. Having vowed to bring them home before his wife dies, and with nothing else to do now, Connor heads to Turkey to find them. But the local British officer (Jai Courtney) doesn't want him anywhere near the battlefield, where experts are still identifying the remains of fallen soldiers. So with the help of local officer Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), Connor makes his own way to the site and, using his skills at discovering underwater wells, finds the bodies of two of his sons. Then he learns that the third (Ryan Corr) might have survived.
Alongside this story, Connor has a series of tentative romantic interludes with Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), the hot clerk at his Constantinople hotel, where she lives with her precocious 10-year-old son (Dylan Georgiades) while waiting for her husband to be declared one of the war dead. But if this happens, she will have to become her leery brother-in-law's third wife. This sideroad is so soapy that it constantly derails the rest of the movie, stealing focus from the more intriguing political tensions and Connor's own emotional journey. At least Crowe and Kurylenko are solid in their roles, even generating some chemistry in their tentative, unnecessary scenes. And Erdogan and Cem Yilmaz (as a rival Turkish officer) ground things nicely, connecting the rest of the film with the grisly well-recreated battle scenes.
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