25 April review

25 April is in cinemas now
25 April is in cinemas now

Finally, a film which tells the New Zealand side of the seminal Gallipoli campaign -- but the animated documentary 25 April, which opens in cinemas today, does much more than just 'tell'.

Using animation, the filmmakers have crafted a living, breathing, visual document, and at its heart are the recollections and testimony of six people who were there 101 years ago.

It is these interviews, delivered with great skill by six talented actors using motion-capture technology, that stitch the film's narrative together. Their words are their own, taken from personal diaries and letters.

So, what this version of Gallipoli shows us is the truth, as these people knew it and experienced.

We hear from are a mix of those involved: an Australian nurse, three Kiwi infantrymen (one is Maori, sniper Thomas 'Hami' Grace), a stretcher bearer (soon to be author and pacifist Ormond Burton) and a senior officer (Edmund Bowler).

Bowler, played with great sensitivity by actor Andrew Grainger, was the only New Zealand member of the ANZAC Staff Corps (most were English), and the first senior officer to land on the morning of 25 April.

Bowler's interview begins brightly, full of British Empire jingoism, but he soon realises the impossible task facing his New Zealanders.

While the interviews provide 25 April with its heart, it is the reimagined chaos of Anzac Cove and Cape Helles where director Leanne Pooley and Flux Animation Studio really let their creativity run wild. The battle scenes run the full gambit from stark realism to high fantasy.

Pooley's eye is constantly searching the battlefield. The viewer is hurled into the claustrophobic and terror-filled trenches of Quinn's Post, before gazing down from the clouds at the corpse littered slopes of Chunuk Bair.

Using the great freedom of animation, Pooley and her team reveal the depravity of what it was like for troops to exist alongside billions of flies. Birthed from the thousands of corpses rotting in no man's land, the flies bring Gallipoli's great scourge of dysentery with them.

When the soldiers attempt to eat the stringy pieces of salted beef fat and rock hard biscuits that make up their appalling diet, they can't help but swallow the flies as well.

25 April also examines the lice infestations that constantly tortured every man on the peninsula. It is in these sequences in which Pooley's animated eye can really flourish, as she portrays the invasive critters up close and with character -- the flies and lice become repulsive symbols of the men's anguish and suffering.

The hospital ships also provide sobering scenes of war's reality. The portrayal of a soldier whose eyes have been shot out, but who thinks his sight will soon return, is especially moving.

Thankfully, there are also a few lighter moments. Bowler's feisty terrier provides the troops (and the viewer) a welcome pet dog to fawn over, while the Kiwis strip down to swim and delouse at the beach, braving the bullets to take a dip.

One scene evocatively shows how the men craved and devoured precious letters from home, and Pooley's use of animation here is nuanced and surprising.

Not all of 25 April is so original, however. Some scenes feel like well-worn tropes we've seen in a dozen other films depicting war.

One that particularly that stood out to me was when a soldier briefly makes friends with an enemy during a truce to bury the dead, before seeing the same man again during battle and facing the conundrum of whether to shoot him or not.

But most of the film is startlingly original, and for that the filmmakers are to be commended.

25 April ends on a nationalistic tone, with the survivors thinking of themselves not as members of the British Empire, but as New Zealanders.

Home is where the heart is, and this film has plenty.

Four-and-a-half stars.

   25 April:: Director: Leanne Pooley:: Starring: Tainui Tukiwaho, Andrew Grainger, Chelsie Preston-Crayford, Fraser Brown, Matt Whelan, Gareth Reeves:: Rating: M - War footage:: Running Time: 85 minutes:: Release Date: April 28, 2016