One of the opening scenes of The Water Diviner involves wandering through the Turkish trenches, preparing for a morning charge. The authoritative figure of Yilmaz Erdogan playing the infamous Major Hasan spends a few seconds motivating his troops before they stream across 'no man's land.' When they muster up the courage, they charge and arrive to find a series of contraptions to guise the Australian retreat. Out of the ashes of failure and death Russell Crowe's directorial debut soars. Australian Cattleman Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe) and wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) experience the ultimate tragedy. Their three sons serve on the shores of Gallipoli and never return. In 1919 Connor begins a pilgrimage to bring the remains of his sons home, holding on to the threads of hope that they're alive.
Mr. Crowe is able to strike the balance between propagating the Australia's foundation myths and putting them under the microscope. The shores of Gallipoli were where the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) character was born, and yet it was ultimately a brutal defeat. He and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios also frame the naivety and thus the spirit of the Australian people believing in the cause of good. The weathered wisdom of Mr. Erdogan's Major Hasan, educates Connor on the Ottoman Empire and the spoils of Empire building even in this modern war. There’s also a great contradictory relationship between faith and fatalism that has the characters butting heads with organised religion while trusting an ambivalent ‘oneness’ with nature.
The Water Diviner charts a journey from the rugged beauty of Malle in rural Victoria, where the wilderness wants to strangle you to death; to the jewel of the former Ottoman Empire, Constantinople (now Istanbul) occupied and policed by the British military. Mr. Knight and Mr. Anastasios provide a focused script that firstly begins in a communal, religious Australia ill-equipped to deal with psychological fallout of war. The story has to travel through the historical turmoil of the region as the Greeks and Armenians make claims to the Anatolian lands and the Allies benevolently occupy Turkey, despite the increasingly hostile population. Mr. Knight and Anastasios highlight that the end of the war in 1918 merely paused the underlying European conflict that would reignite in 1939.
Mr. Crowe's directorial style is definitely influenced from his most frequent collaborator in Ridley Scott. He manoeuvres between the sweeping and grandiose to the fierce intimacy of mental turmoil and hand to hand combat, albeit not quite as fluidly. Mr. Crowe and cinematographer Andrew Leslie (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) fashion some gorgeously iconic imagery; Connor on horseback streaming through a vale toward a sandstorm, or marvelling at the beauty of Sultan Ahmed Mosque (a.k.a Blue Mosque). Mr. Crowe haunts his character Connor with flashbacks of the battles that feel like they're spiritually communicating to him. It's a performance that's best when he's bearing the burden of son's lost and faced with the torment that he could have kept them away from the conflict. The universals between the men are both the vision of a better and prosperous future for their family and the grief for those who failed to make it through the war.
It's definitely rough around the edges, and that's primarily due to modest budget of a first time director and the epic scope of this period film. There's also a pause in the middle of the film as Connor is getting to know Olga Kurylenko's Ayshe and her son that tonally undoes the emotional weight of the rest of the journey.
The Water Diviner is one father's crusade for peace as he wades through the devastation of war. Mr. Crowe has done an accomplished job of revisiting Gallipoli, with an open heart.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Russell Crowe
Written by: Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jai Courtney, Olga Kurylenko, Isabel Lucas, Cem Yilmaz, Yilmaz Erdogan, Deniz Akdeniz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Megan Gale, Damon Herriman, Ryan Corr, Birol Tarkan Yildiz, Michael Dorman, Dan Wyllie