25 April - review

by Catherine McGregor / 21 April, 2016
This animated docudrama shows the heat of battle, but it doesn’t challenge the Anzac myth.

If you’re interested in the roots of New Zealand’s legendary reputation for self-effacement, a good place to start might be the Gallipoli campaign, a shambolic disaster that is nonetheless one of our greatest sources of national pride. The animated docu-drama 25 April attempts to tell the real story of the New Zealand Army Corps’ experiences on the Gallipoli peninsula, based on the letters, diaries and memoirs of five Kiwi soldiers who took part in the campaign, and one Australian nurse.

The cast, including Chelsie Preston Crayford (Hope and Wire), Matt Whelan (Go Girls) and Tainui Tukiwaho (Billy), give voice to the material through motion-captured “interviews”, intercut with depictions of life in the trenches, in the heat of battle, and on board a hospital ship to which casualties were evacuated.

Watch the trailer:


There are obvious advantages and drawbacks to this approach. The first-hand accounts put us right beside a sniper as he picks off an Ottoman counterpart on a mountain pass, and behind an exhausted member of the Wellington Battalion as he makes his way through the foothills of Chunuk Bair. We hear of the boredom, the homesickness, the lice infestations and the terrible food. But by relying only on the words of just six people who were there, director Leanne Pooley and producer Matthew Metcalfe (who came up with the concept) have painted themselves into a corner.

The inclusion of the testimony of Edmund Bowler, a high-ranking Anzac who consistently criticised the campaign, is to be applauded, but there’s little opportunity to question other Anzac myths. All the Kiwis are consistently heroic and humble, for example — so unlike the uptight Brits, who are, it’s implied, culpable for Gallipoli’s every tactical mistake, including the New Zealand disaster on Chunuk Bair. Stripped of its larger context, we learn much about the horrors of war but nothing of the political and cultural machinations that led to the catastrophic campaign.
Stripped of its larger context, we learn much about the horrors of war but nothing of the political and cultural machinations that led to the catastrophic campaign.

The animation, by Auckland’s Flux Studio, is a not-altogether-successful amalgam of motion capture, 3D modelling and traditional hand-drawn animation. There’s an “uncanny valley” effect to the mo-capped animation, most noticeable early on, and the inking on the faces is distractingly heavy-handed. Likewise, the rendering of movement, footsteps in particular, can be clunky.

But those quibbles aside, there are many gorgeous scenes that will stay with you long after the lights come up. Against the endless khaki of military encampments and scrubland, the colours of war — a red, smoke-darkened sunset; the purple midnight of the Chunuk Bair advance — are breathtakingly luminous.

I loved the flights of fancy, like a glimpse into the sybaritic existence of a blood-sucking louse — brief absurdist moments in a story of almost unbelievable military madness.

Although it’s not marketed as such, 25 April will surely find its most sympathetic and enduring audiences inside the country’s school system. With its vivid animation and straightforward script, this seems an ideal 85-minute cinematic primer for any young student of the Gallipoli campaign. My only hope is that it’s accompanied by some required reading that’s a little more sceptical about the nationalist myth.

In cinemas from April 28.

Read more: Anzac Day - It's not all about glory

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