Movie review: 25 April a graphic reminder

By Peter Calder

Evocative animated account gives us a new way to commemorate Gallipoli.

A scattering of Monday screenings - four of them in Auckland - of this version of the Gallipoli story precede its opening on Thursday. It may seem a year late, although it has avoided getting lost in the welter of 1915 coverage that was 2015.

Still, as the country marks the centenary of the day we first observed Anzac Day, even the most patriotic New Zealander might be forgiven for feeling a touch of Gallipoli fatigue. And it would be a shame if that kept them away from this evocative and moving account, the first animated feature entirely made here.

Scene from 25 April.
Scene from 25 April.

Director Leanne Pooley, who enthralled with Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, collaborated with her long-time editor Tim Woodhouse on a script that uses only the words of the film's six "characters", as captured in diaries, letters and memoirs.

Those real people, Hami Grace (Tukiwaho); Edmund Bowler (Grainger); Muriel Wakeford (Preston Crayford); George Tuck (Brown); John Persson (Whelan); and Ormond Burton (Reeves) were five New Zealand soldiers and an Australian nurse, and their verbatim accounts knit together to provide a comprehensive account of the doomed eight-month campaign to take the peninsula whose name resounds through our national myth.

Their stories are illustrated by battlefield, trench and hospital ship scenes whose 2D animation, with its craggy, vaguely cubist shapes and jerky movement, has an interestingly distancing effect, making the battlefield experiences paradoxically more absorbing than live action.

The sheer polish of the CGI-assisted mayhem in big-budget Hollywood films can preclude a visceral response, since the hyper-realistic action is so patently created. Here, animation allows us a detachment that encourages reflection: how dreadful, we ask ourselves as we watch an animated depiction, must the real thing have been?

Scene from 25 April.
Scene from 25 April.

It also gives space for flights of fancy - a corpse-eye view of a burial at sea; a pool of blood turning into poppies - even if some are ill-judged (a sequence showing lice at work belongs in another film).

At times, this achieves an almost epic power. There's a scene in which the trenches fall silent because it's mail day.

Men read and re-read loving letters from home, immersing themselves in every phrase, and the filmmakers place them there, at first turning each dark foxhole into a bright window into another world and then placing each weary warrior in a front room or on a verandah.

It's a moment of sheer magic and it would take a hard heart not to tear up. Yet animation has not been used as a licence for grisly explicitness.

When troops went "over the top" on suicidal charges at the Turkish lines, it made for bloodbaths beyond imagining.

25 April animated documentary about Gallipoli.
25 April animated documentary about Gallipoli.

But the filmmakers have had the sensitivity to realise that any depiction will cheapen the reality unless it is inflected with a reverent, even poetic, restraint: the men we watch falling in a horizontal hail of bullets fall, unstruck, not into mud, but into immortality and when a single bullet passes through a thigh, we wince with the pain of it.

Hami Grace's last appearance is almost unbearably rich in pathos.

But the film's most telling achievement is in interview sequences in which the animation is the flesh on digital skeletons created by motion-capture. T

hus the actors are far more than voices: they were filmed enacting interviews which, when animated, achieve a rare degree of artistry. In catching a frown here, a cock of a head there, the film brings to life long-dead people in a way that makes them, oddly, more real than living ones. It's an eerie, humbling, often intensely moving experience.

25 April animated documentary about Gallipoli.
25 April animated documentary about Gallipoli.

This far down the track, it's easy to argue about the rights and wrongs of celebrating the slaughter of our young men in support of an ill-advised and criminally mismanaged campaign by our colonial masters.

And it's worth saying that the film doesn't flinch from that question: one of its main characters became a noted and persecuted pacifist.

But 25 April doesn't seek to reinterpret the past: its mission is to document it is a direct and accessible way and it does that magnificently. It is assured of a long life, if only in the schoolrooms of the future, but it certainly warrants watching now.

25 April

Cast: Tainui Tukiwaho, Andrew Grainger, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Fraser Brown, Matt Whelan, Gareth Reeves
Director: Leanne Pooley Running time: 85 mins
Rating: M (war footage)
Verdict: Eerie, humbling and moving.

- TimeOut

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