By all accounts, Russell Crowe is something of a pompous ass. But he also seems to be a man who cares deeply about his craft and takes it seriously. So if any actor is well-positioned to make the leap to directing, you’d think it’s him.
Furthermore, The Water Diviner features him in the leading role, and it’s textbook Crowe material: a father and Australian rancher, on a journey to discover what happened to his sons in the aftermath of the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I. It’s a blunt role with few complexities – rather like Maximus in Gladiator, though the motive force in this case is closure rather than vengeance. It’s the sort of thing that would be flat in the hands of a lesser actor, but gives Crowe the freedom to add in the colorations of tormented manhood he particularly excels at.
In short, The Water Diviner seems pretty close to a sure thing. But apparently not. To be frank, the film feels like a glorified BBC television miniseries, full of ham-handed shot choices and shop-worn character arcs and rote plot points.
It begins with Connor (Crowe) tending his ranch in Australia. His trade is a “water diviner”: quite literally, he finds underground water by a kind of instinct. His wife, Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) is in bad mental straights, mourning their three sons who were killed at Gallipoli several years before. After she tears into Connor for losing the boys, there’s a slow, poignant dolly back out of the kitchen and into the bedroom, to reveal him reading Arabian Nights to three empty beds.
When Eliza drowns – probably by suicide – Connor swears at her grave that he will find their boys and lay them to rest beside her, so he sets off for Turkey. At the hotel he stays at, he meets Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), who run the establishment along with Ayshe’s brother-in-law. Their friendship provides Connor something of an anchor while he tries to get to the peninsula to retrieve his sons’ bodies.
An overbearing British commander rebuffs his request to visit the battlefield, but another officer kindly points Connor to a fisherman who can take him across the water. That sort of decency is a refreshing aspect of The Water Diviner, and it crops up a few more times. On Gallipoli, Connor meets the Turkish Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) and the Australian Lieutenant Colonel Hughes (Jai Courtney), who are working to identify the dead, and who are both moved by Connor’s story in their own way. Hasan in particular weathers Connor’s initial rage at the man who commanded the forces that killed his sons with grace and compassion.
Needless to say, what Connor discovers on Gallipoli complicates his expectations, and the quest continues through various parts of Turkey.
The script, by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, is weirdly unmoored: Is Connor seeking redemption, understanding, a fresh start? The film skips briefly over these possibilities, but never engages deeply and never makes up its mind. What Connor’s rather quixotic trade has to do with anything is never fleshed out either, besides a vaguely-defined sixth sense that serves him at crucial plot moments.
The closest The Water Diviner comes to central thesis is the universal idea that all fathers will inevitably fail their sons – indeed, family members of all sorts will inevitably fail one another – so how do we forgive ourselves and them? Specifically, The Water Diviner suggests Connor failed by allowing his sons to go off to war, which is an interesting and politically pungent notion. But we get no setup: Was the boys’ departure a matter of contention in the home? Did their mother protest? Did Connor protest, but then relent? Or was he as swept up in the grand romance of the war as much as his sons were?
Answering these questions is rather central to the story’s dramatic tension, but it whiffs, and just decides three-fourths of the way through that, aha, that’s the theme!
The performances are all good, though the actors are doing what they can with one-note roles (In Gladiator, Maximus may have been a simple character, but he was surrounded by fascinating and complex personalities.) Erdogan is unwaveringly dignified and decent as Hasan, and Kurylenko milks all she can out of a thankless and obligatory love interest part. Then there’s Jai Courtney, who you may recognize as John McClane’s son in A Good Day To Die Hard and as Kyle Reese in there upcoming Terminator: Genisys – both effectively the same character. But in The Water Diviner, he turns in brief but solid work as the capable-yet-gruffly-amiable Hughes (weirdly all his lines in his first scene seem to be redubbed.) Ryan Corr is also solid as Connor’s son Arthur, during some harrowing flashbacks to the battle.
The best filmmaking comes at the beginning, when we see Connor in an overhead shot surveying the ground. Then he spends all day in a one-man well-digging operation. It’s a fun moment of physical storytelling, and there’s a neat perspective shot up out of the well as Connor lets the rising water carry him to the top. But the rest of Crowe’s direction is utilitarian and workman-like, with no creativity or use of camera placement and movement to heighten emotions or drive the story forward.
You can see what attracted the actor to the material, but in retrospect he should have let someone else take the helm.