The Water Diviner is a peculiar film, occupying a hazy space between inspired and misguided. It takes a certain audacity for an Australian filmmaker to focus on the conflict in Gallipoli during the first World War, so imposing is the presence of Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli on the arena of local cinema but Russell Crowe, in his first directorial role, is not wanting for nerve. Crowe embraces his duties wholeheartedly and manages to build a handful of impressive moments, perhaps not out of skill but out of gusto – although the credits congratulations to his rugby team, the Rabbitohs, diminishes the emotional impact of the story somewhat (“21st Premiership You Beauty”.)
Regarding the conflict, The Water Diviner picks up where Weir’s film left off. The battle of Gallipoli has ended, with over 100,000 casualties to answer for. Connor (Crowe), is an isolated farmer in Australia living in quiet grief having lost his three sons in the bloodshed. After the suicide of his anguish-ridden wife, Connor resolves to travel to Turkey to get some sort of closure on his loss.
The Water Diviner is too broad and cumbersome too encourage intimate drama but likewise hindered by budget and directorial aptitude to ever fill the enormous scope it aims for. As a result, The Water Diviner feels like a series of episodic tales, often unrelated and unsupportive of one another, some successful and others less so. The longer the film continues, the worse Crowe’s decisions become, particularly regarding a misguided romantic subplot between Connor and Turkish war widow Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), which is cheaply handled and entirely unnecessary.
This romance spurs Connor on to more reckless – and ludicrous – behaviour, including a bizarre Istanbul rooftop chase and a Anatolian gunfight against the Greeks, until the elegant idea of a father’s search for his sons becomes hazy amidst the needless cinematic dazzle. Far more interesting is Connor’s visit to Canakkale and then Gallipoli, quietly persevering in his search for a conclusion, although his magical bone-finding ability stretch far being the point of credulity. What realistic drama could have been wrought from real digging for and identifying bones, which real men did after the war, is left unanswered.
Crowe maintains an admirably level head regarding the conflict, introducing characters and situations with empathy for both sides of the war. Turkish officers meet Australian officers and recognise the humanity in one another but are unable to shed the years of animosity born out of war. The Water Diviner is at its best when Crowe trusts in the inherently powerful connection between fathers, brothers and sons. In a scene far more affecting than any gore Steven Spielberg offered up in Saving Private Ryan, an injured soldier must lie and listen to his brother’s dying moans. There are moments of such inspiration among the less successful elements. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough.