2015 - 111 minutes
Directed by: Russell Crowe
Written by: Andrew Knight, Andrew Anastasios
Starring: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Jai Courtney, Ryan Corr, Ben O’Toole
Russell Crowe the actor is solid in The Water Diviner, but the performance isn’t done any favors by Russell Crowe the director. The choppy post-World War I epic is crammed with standard historical drama elements, and while the effort appears heartfelt, Crowe’s directorial debut never fully connects emotionally. Various dramatic threads – a parent’s grief-driven quest, the horrors of war and their aftermath, wartime politics, and an obligatory romance, among them – never come together. They curdle individually.
Crowe plays Australian farmer Joshua Connor, whose three sons went off to battle the Turks in the Gallipoli Campaign and never returned. Joshua’s wife kills herself four years after the presumed deaths, prompting the devastated man to travel to Turkey and recover his sons’ remains so they can buried on consecrated ground alongside their mother. A meet-cute with precocious boy Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) leads Joshua to a hotel run by the boy’s beautiful mother Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), where he establishes a home base and a love interest. Facing resistance from the military establishment, Joshua is determined to get to Gallipoli and locate his boys, finding assistance from an unlikely source in Turkish Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan).
Settings, from Australia’s outback to the Turkish coast and cities are often stunning, though a constantly bright or magic-hour-lit sheen underscores the film’s overt earnestness. Complications, be they matters of the heart, political or military might, or general logistics are handled with throwaway lines and borderline fantastical resolution.
Flashbacks showing bursts of bloody trench warfare, resulting in the recovery efforts and stacks of skulls on the now calm battlefield are momentarily jarring, though metaphysical connections and convenient plotting – or plodding – zap the affectivity. If you can believe a man can apply his divining skills, used to dig wells on his farm, to locating the remains of loved ones on a murky battlefield, then perhaps you can go along with the rest of the contrived hokum.
The relationship of Joshua and Ayshe is overwritten by scribes Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, and scrubbed of any of the messiness that makes it possible. Ayshe’s husband was also killed at Gallipoli, explained by a photograph given to Joshua by young Orhan (whose name, incidentally, is one letter away from “orphan”). Instead of two people dealing with and drawn together by familiar loss, a convenient villain is introduced in the form of Ayshe’s former brother-in-law, who is determined to take her as a second bride. The entire courtship is forced and artificial.
The bond that almost works is the one between Joshua and Major Hasan. Erdogan hints at the exhaustion that comes from a battle-tested life, which helps ground the partnership of Turkish warrior and overwhelmed Australian farmer. Alas, the payoff of the alliance doesn’t amount to much, especially when the evil, one-note invading Greeks show up to run roughshod. They, like everything in The Water Diviner, are trumped-up stimulation that dilutes any real, human drama.