by Philip Price
The major reason many people are discussing “The Water Diviner” can be sourced back to one single reason – it serves as the directorial debut of one Russell Crowe. Would there be as much conversation around the film were it made by another first-time director? Would the film have even been made had Crowe not put his weight behind it and chose it as his debut project? Probably not and so we can at least thank him for deciding to do something suitable for his stage in life by bringing audiences an adult drama that major studios don’t tend to make much anymore. While this is by no means a substantial film it is more passable for its well-meaning story and, at the very least, to see where Crowe’s inclinations lead him as a director and what we can take away from this semi-experiment that might apply to better, more assured products under Crowe’s supervision in the future. That isn’t to say “The Water Diviner” is a bad film or one that is actively trying to be nothing more than adequate, it is just simply that: adequate on every level without coming close to exception in any case. Some parts are stronger than others, some acting is better given what characters are included in a given scene, some scenes are staged more effectively than others with more interesting shooting techniques while the pacing is about as good as one could expect given the film doesn’t know how to cut the unnecessary plot points that probably felt necessary in the script, but make the experience of actually watching the film drag on. There is no doubt that Crowe and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios intended for this to be something of a large, sweeping historical epic, but the scale of filmmaking is simply not here for that ambition to be met and the impact of the story is felt more through the acting of Crowe than any of his directorial choices that might have made this a more affecting and therefore more significant experience.
We are introduced to Australian farmer Connor (Russell Crowe) and his gift for divining water, but not before we are given a glimpse into the Battle of Gallipoli. Why this man and these events are connected is the string in which the film intends to follow and so, after the death of his wife (Jaqueline McKenzie), Connor sets out for Gallipoli himself in order to find his three missing sons. Upon arriving in Turkey, Connor faces more trials in getting to his destination than expected forcing him to take refuge at a hotel in Istanbul managed by the beautiful Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her son, Orhan (Dylan Georgiades). Connor’s journey also happens to occur at the same time the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) are engaging in a mass burial detail in which all civilians are banned from journeying to Gallipoli. When Ayshe learns of Connor’s intent, she suggests a local fisherman she knows who might take him to where he yearns to go and we see sparks implied. When Connor finally does arrive he is confronted with only more resistance from ANZAC captain Lt. Col. Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney). It is not until Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan), a Turkish officer assisting the ANZAC, persuades Hughes to prioritize helping Connor with his search that we begin to see both the protagonist and the overall narrative make some leeway.
This lacking of story as far as a driving force is concerned is what makes up for much of the film’s lackluster pacing. Sure, the journey of Connor is an inspired and valuable one, but there simply isn’t enough intrigue in the events it took for Connor to get from point A to point B to support a feature-length film. In seeming to know this, but pushing ahead anyway, both Crowe and his screenwriters resort to a barrage of flashbacks that are meant to give the film that aforementioned scope, but resonate little with the audience due to their large insignificance in connection with the main narrative dealing with Connor and his journey. Others who watch the film and come away with the idea that these flashbacks are necessary because they put us in the midst of the Battle of Gallipoli and in the midst of Connor’s sons whom he is searching for will surely feel confident in this connection as Crowe clearly did. This is not Connor’s sons story though – it is his and while one or two flashbacks to build the history he has with his children or to show why he might have such regret in sending them off to war would be warranted for character development, the amount of times and the length of time Crowe goes back to this well of a battlefield displays desperation more than anything.
There isn’t much more to be said for the film given it is a mostly straightforward tale of one father’s journey to gain atonement for the death of his wife in seeking the truth of what happened to his sons in the midst of World War I. It is a fine enough film, but I of course have to believe that isn’t what Crowe was going for. As a native Australian, Crowe not only has a likely affinity for these historical events, but would want to do them a grand justice by bringing one of their stories to the big screen. While “The Water Diviner” is solid entertainment it isn’t the type of film that will have you researching or continually thinking about the events it describes days later which I imagine is what any filmmaker would like their project to elicit. As the major problems with the film seem to be that of a weak script and the unsteady directorial hand of a first-timer, Crowe often resorts to a standard way of doing things so as to likely make sure he was covered once they arrived in the editing room. As for his performance, it is a much more confident piece of skill on display than his direction would suggest. His scenes with Erdoğan are one of the films few genuine highlights. Crowe has such a presence though, such a natural charisma to him that we’ve all seen countless times before by this point that it is impossible not to be somewhat taken in by his plight. With a lacking story though, we are never able to become fully invested. Kurylenko is fine enough as well, given she doesn’t have much to do beyond participate in the forced love story angle that is never really fleshed out. More attention is paid to the developing relationship between Connor and Orhan, but this archetype just proves tired and even a little irritating given the nature of the child.
Not to be restrained to a simple character study, or as a documenting of the personal journey of a defeated man, Crowe gives audiences what they seemingly want through intermittent action sequences, heart-wrenching war scenes between brothers, a promising love angle and some light comedy courtesy of the little kid helping the old curmudgeon open his eyes to a new world of possibilities. And while Crowe’s efforts as a director certainly need some focusing so as to create a film more able to fulfill its intentions, it is the script and the story that would benefit all the more from some focusing as there is certainly much here to mine for good material that instead ends up feeling stretched too thin because of all the bases it tries to cover.