Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, “The Water Diviner,” is a well-crafted, very well-acted and unexpectedly moving period drama about forgiveness in the wake of war. He also has too many balls in the air, and “The Water Diviner” suffers from a periodic identity crisis, trying to be too many types of movie at the same time. The story is primarily about Joshua Connor (Crowe), a widowed Australian farmer, who, four years after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of World War I, goes to Turkey looking for his three sons, who went missing there and are presumed dead.
That simple idea, reportedly inspired by a single line in an old letter uncovered by screenwriter Andrew Anastasios while researching a projected documentary, would have been enough to support the movie. Unfortunately, the script is a bit of a muddle which wants to be a love story, a war movie, a buddy movie and a culture clash story. Maybe David Lean could have handled all of those, but he would have insisted on a better script.
The characters in the movie tend to be two-dimensional at best, archetypes, representations of a cinematic Jungian system straight from central casting. What drives Connor beyond his dead wife’s recriminations that the loss of their sons is his fault is never particularly clear. In a many ways, he’s little more than an archetype of the rugged, individualistic Australian, which is to American audiences, anyway, is essentially Gary Cooper with an accent. The lovely Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace,” “Oblivion”) is the widow who won’t accept her husband’s death in the war until she falls in love with the hero. Dylan Georgiades plays her Cute Son. The rapidly up and coming Jai Courtney (“Divergent,” “Insurgent,” “Terminator: Genisys”) plays the Sympathetic Officer. Yilmaz Erdogan plays the Noble Enemy.
The movie opens with Crowe, holding dowsing rods, searching for water in the ruggedly photogenic, sunbaked Australian landscape. The fact that he finds it begs the question of how much we should read into his Old Testament name. This skill, with its supernatural overtones, actually has very little to do with most of the movie’s action, despite giving the movie its title. It only really rears its head again once, allowing Connor to discover the remains of his sons on the beach of Gallipoli, which is littered with the bones of thousands of dead young men, English, Australian and Turkish.
Crowe doesn’t have the budget to do combat sequences on the scale of “Saving Private Ryan” or Aussie Peter Weir’s 1981 “Gallipoli,” which helped launch the career of Mel Gibson. He does fairly well with a compressed canvas. If some of the combat scenes are generic, there are some that hit unexpectedly hard. An unnervingly intimate portrait of impending death as a wounded man tries to hold his guts in while his breath becomes increasingly labored will be hard to forget. That scene also takes some horrific turns it would be cruel to spoil.
The romantic subplot, rife with culture clash moments, is predictable though enjoyable enough, but glaringly out of place. Too, the script is awkward in its periodic treatment of the harsher aspects of both Christianity and Islam. A horrifyingly insensitive Christian priest (Damon Herriman), who callously nags the grieving Connor about the implications if his wife did in fact commit suicide, is right of the middle ages-set “Kingdom of Heaven,” one of Ridley Scott’s few recent period pieces that didn’t star Crowe. The script also bristles at the treatment of women in Islam, yet at the same time director Crowe can’t help showing Joshua being somewhat awed by the Blue Mosque.
In some ways the real star of the movie is Academy Award® winning director of photography Andrew Lesnie (“The Lord of the Rings” movies, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “The Hobbit” movies). Lesnie, who’s been Sir Peter Jackson’s go-to guys for years, has an almost painterly eye for color and texture, and takes full advantage of the exotic locations without a touristy sensibility. Although Crowe is far too fond of distracting overhead shots, “The Water Diviner” is an extremely handsome movie.
Crowe finds his rhythm and purpose in Connor’s relationship with the Turkish officer, Major Hasan (Erdogan). Here, the movie’s great themes of forgiveness and reconciliation come to at least a partial fruition, as Crowe the director astonishingly manages to handle yet more cinematic archetypes without the expected bromance and buddy movies clichés. On this ground, Crowe finds genuine heart and emotional content, and provides glimpses of the even better film this could have been. At these moments, “The Water Diviner” eloquently reminds us that decency can follow indecency and that the first step in forgiveness is in giving up all hope of a better past.
“The Water Diviner” is now playing at the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX and the Spectrum 7 on Delaware Avenue.