Marking the directorial debut of Oscar winning actor Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner sees the man best known as Gladiator examine the fallout of an infamous battle rather than the event itself. But while the subject of the film remains personal Crowe is determined to bring an epic sensibility to the proceedings.
When his three sons are presumed dead after the battle of Gallipoli a water diviner, a man who scours arid land to unearth water, Joshua Connor (Crowe) is devastated further when his wife kills herself over the grief of their loss. Determined to do right by his family he travels to Turkey where he meets resistance from both the Australian and Turkish military still trying to come to terms with what happened. While staying at a hotel he strikes up a friendship with a young boy whose mother Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) is grieving the loss of her husband at the hands of the Australian army.
There is a belligerence to The Water Diviner. On the one hand you have Joshua stubbornly never giving up his search for both water beneath the desert and his sons buried beneath the battlefield. But on the other you have Crowe and screenwriters Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight belligerently refusing to sway from a romanticised ideal of both the grieving process and the aftermath of war.
The film, upon its cinematic release, was met with protests at its depiction of the Turks as victims. But to get too caught up in the “based on true events” is to willingly ignore the “based on” aspect of that sentiment. Crowe is not interested in giving us a lesson in history but an examination of grief and the lengths people will go to for closure.
It doesn’t always work. The narrative is often episodic, feeling more akin to a four-part BBC drama rather than a film. Subplots seem to come and go at will, the relationship between Joshua and Ayshe coming as such an afterthought you wonder why is wasn’t simply removed in the editing process, but what it sets out to achieve it does so with a sense of pride.
Crowe has worked with some of the best filmmakers of this generation and has clearly been taking note. His sense of the grand sweeping vistas of Turkey being instilled with Ridley Scott like visuals and the attention to character, albeit often quite and brooding, coming straight out of the Michael Mann school of thought. At these points The Water Diviner works and keeps the attention.
Furthermore Crowe has always been an imposing and magnetic screen presence. As Joshua he brings a larger than life but always emotionally rooted man to life. He is ably supported by Kurylenko whose fiery disposition nicely balances with Joshua’s softly spoken still. Crowe’s chemistry with Yilmaz Erdogan, who plays the Turkish general who oversaw the carnage at Gallipoli, is a focal point of the film in addressing the key themes. The pair going from shooting daggers at each other to a deeper understanding that makes for an infinitely more engaging subplot than the relationship between Crowe and Kurylenko.
While it doesn’t shoot from the ground in a glorious fountain The Water Diviner is a heartfelt drama that flows in just about the right places and certainly marks Crowe as a director of talent if working from the right material.