Russell Crowe steps behind the camera for The Water Diviner (in theaters April 24), an epic inspired by the real-life quest of an Australian father who heads to Turkey in search of his three sons, believed killed in action at Gallipoli in World War I. Crowe’s feature debut as a director delivers mixed results, as an interesting and largely well-acted story collides with too much length and a tone that feels at odds with the film’s true events roots.
Now, Russell Crowe is no stranger to playing the man’s man, or the wounded man’s man, grieving for his family. He returns to this territory as Connor. It’s a role he wears well and it’s no hardship to watch him do his thing in The Water Diviner. He shares a fine chemistry with Olga Kurylenko, who is radiant as Ayshe, a woman unable to accept the loss of her husband in the war, and struggling to do right by her young son. As good as they are, the pair of them are upstaged by that son, Orhan, played by Dylan Georgiades, who steals every scene he enters with light, enthusiasm and earnesty.
Where The Water Diviner stumbles somewhat is in trying to do too many things. Is this a war story? A sweeping epic? An action flick? A quest of personal becoming? A romance? It ultimately becomes all of these things and none of these things. Certain elements of each of these genres are in play, and many of them work, but at the expense of the story feeling somewhat disjointed, with some elements left quite unresolved.
Perhaps this is a result of the challenging nature of telling a tale inspired by true events — you want to be true to the source material, but you also have to create a film that can stand on its own. Now “inspired by true events” is vague enough to leave plenty of room for artistic license, but it’s also declared boldly at the start of the film. So, when everything starts to take on a vibe of magical realism, things become a bit more difficult to reconcile. Stranger than fiction tales can be stunning and awe-inspiring, but having a man walk into a ruin in the middle of a country that is foreign to him and sense on his first guess where his son’s bodies lie (it’s in the trailer, so no crying spoiler here) requires just a bit too much suspension of belief to not be jarring. Similarly, key story developments near the end of the show are introduced and brushed off just as quickly.
The Water Diviner has some moments of true beauty and plenty of sound acting, but some strange story choices and bloated runtime (necessitated by doing all the things) hold it back from being truly great. Still, fans of Crowe and historical epics should enjoy it for the production value, scope and the elements that do work.