Film Review: The Water Diviner

Russell Crowe’s directing debut is an entertaining albeit flawed drama-adventure set in the aftermath of one of the most infamous battles of World War I.
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An actor who chooses to make his directing debut in a film in which he stars and co-produces is taking a risk, given that his will be the loudest and the most powerful creative voice. Especially when he’s Russell Crowe.  

The gamble has paid off thus far, as The Water Diviner is a sizeable hit in Australia, grossing nearly $A16 million (US$12.2 mil.), and in Turkey, where much of the film is set. That suggests a crowd-pleasing quality which, combined with Crowe’s drawing power, could ensure a decent turnout in the U.S., where Warner Bros. is planning a limited release for this affecting saga of family, war, mateship, tolerance and reconciliation.  

To his credit, Crowe has crafted a handsome-looking film which takes a refreshingly original look at the infamous battle of Gallipoli and its aftermath from both sides—the Western allies and the Turks. On the downside, the director can’t resist the temptation to ladle on the melodrama, often to the point of mawkish excess.

Crowe gives a strong and compelling performance as Joshua Connor, a grimly resolute farmer who goes to Turkey in search of his three soldier sons, presumed casualties. But Connor’s interaction with Ayshe (Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko), a young Muslim widow who runs a hotel in Istanbul, never rings true and seems a contrivance to give the film a female dimension and romantic possibilities, neither of which serve the primary story.

The screenplay is credited to Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight, but Film Journal International has learned there was a lot of rewriting and revisions. That suggests some of the discipline in the dialogue and characterizations created by Anastasios and Knight may have been lost in the execution.

The prologue depicts Turkish troops storming the Anzac (Australian and New Zealand) trenches, only to discover they are empty and booby-trapped. The narrative then introduces Connor as a hard-working farmer in the arid Mallee region of Victoria  (hence his expertise in water-divining, or dowsing as it’s known in the U.S.) with three young sons and devoted wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie, reuniting with Crowe 22 years after Geoffrey Wright’s vicious skinhead drama Romper Stomper).

Fast-forward to 1919, four years after Gallipoli, and a traumatic event prompts Connor to set off for Turkey in hopes of finding his sons Henry (Ben O'Toole), Arthur (Ryan Corr) and Edward (James Fraser) dead or alive. Thereafter, the structure of alternating between the expertly staged World War I battles and Connor’s quest works reasonably well to maintain the tension, despite the banal interludes with Ayshe.       

Initially, Connor is rebuffed by the stuffy English military establishment and he gets a cool reception from Ayshe and her conservative brother-in-law Omer (Steve Bastoni), although her precocious son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) soon provides a cross-cultural bridge. Far more interesting is the dynamic between the Aussie interloper and Turkish major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) and his long-serving sergeant, Jemal (Cem Yilmaz). The reconciliation with his country’s former enemies is moving.

Crowe is well suited to the part of a tough but sensitive man. Erdogan, himself an accomplished director-writer-actor, brings both dignity and nuance to his role, for which he won the best supporting actor award at this year’s Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AATCA) Awards.

Jai Courtney is subtly effective as an Australian officer who works with the Imperial War Graves unit in the recovery and burial of the Australian soldiers. He ruefully observes, “We lost 10,000 Anzacs and we still don’t know where half of them are,’’

Of the sons, Corr’s character is given the most scope and makes the most of it. One jarring note: Dan Wyllie’s plummy English accent as an unhelpful captain will make English audiences cringe, and indeed anyone else who is familiar with the English accent.    

Oscar-winner Andrew Lesnie’s luminous cinematography graphically captures the Australian outback, the Gallipoli battles, a trek through the Anatolian desert, and a thrilling sequence in a hilltop monastery. Christopher Kennedy’s production design is top-notch, complemented by Tess Schofield’s costumes. And David Hirschfelder’s score alternates between subtle and stirring without ever becoming bombastic.

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