Opening here this weekend:
The Water Diviner—Russell Crowe’s feature directorial debut begins with the slippery-phrased assertion that it’s inspired by true events. Set a few years after the ANZAC retreat from Gallipoli, it’s an epic melodrama about parental grief and the horrors of battle.
The “true events” which inspired the film, scripted by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, involved an Australian father who appeared at the battlefield looking for the body of his son, lost there. From this poignant little episode Crowe and his writers have spun the character of Joshua Connor, played by Crowe, a farmer with the ability to “divine” water beneath the deserts of rural Australia.
In the vein of The Fighting Sullivans or Saving Private Ryan, all three of Joshua’s sons have disappeared down the ravenous throat of WWI’s Gallipoli Campaign. When his wife succumbs to her grief as well, Joshua posthumously vows to her to travel to Turkey, use his divination ability to find their bodies in the killing fields, and bring them back Down Under.
His quest seems essentially useless—not to mention belated—but sadly understandable, but when he arrives in Turkey the British Army is unsympathetic to him (hostile, really). They initially refuse him admittance to the battlefield, where a sad-eyed Turkish Major, Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) is helping the Brits try to sort out their thousands of unidentified dead.
Hasan is sympathetic to Connor, and the two form a bond. Indeed, in its later acts The Water Diviner becomes almost a buddy picture, as Connor travels with Hasan and his fellow Turkish Nationals into Anatolia, where the latter fight the Greeks and where the former looks for his one still-missing son. The movie also includes a strand in which Connor is befriended by the son (Dylan Georgiades) of the beautiful Turkish war widow Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) who runs the hotel where he’s staying.
Ravishing and poised though Kurylenko is, this love-interest subplot is surprisingly saccharine, and it’s the one part of The Water Diviner that came across forced. About the rest of the film I’m still not sure how I feel. At times it seemed grotesquely heavy-handed, and at others it felt, well, almost primal, with Crowe’s directorial flourishes on war reminiscent of—though not on the same level as—those of silent-era masters like Griffith, Gance and King Vidor.
But this much I'll say: The Water Diviner didn’t bore me, and more than once it brought tears to my eyes. Crowe doesn’t show much gift for subtlety, but he also doesn’t seem in the mood for subtlety. His movie is unapologetically grand, mushy and mystical-minded, and it’s entirely heartfelt in its disgust over the waste and agony of war.