Russell Crowe has long been one of film’s most reliable actors. His work has earned him the reputation for giving strong and steady performances. This has allowed him to dabble in a number of different movie types and genres. But the 51-year old Oscar-winning Australian has watched his career truly flourish in period pieces covering everything from the Roman Empire to 1950s Los Angeles. Regardless of the time period or setting, Crowe always seems perfectly cast.
“The Water Diviner” places Crowe in 1919 following the end of World War I. He plays Joshua Connor, a farmer and water diviner living on the rugged Australian Outback. I knew practically nothing about the practice of water ‘divining’ but the film takes care of that in a fine opening sequence. From there we learn that recently Joshua’s life has been as hard as the ground he works. His three sons were presumed killed during the Battle of Gallipoli and his emotionally fractured wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) found it impossible to cope with the loss.
The grieving yet determined Joshua sets out to keep a promise to his wife – to find his sons and bring their bodies back home for burial. Along the way he is tortured by painful flashbacks, but his search is also assisted by guiding visions. He also encounters several key people along the way. He meets Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), a war widow raising her son and running a hotel in Constantinople. Jai Courtney shows up playing an Australian officer tasked with finding lost Australian soldiers left on the battlefields. But the greatest help comes from an unexpected source, Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan), a Turkish officer deeply sympathetic to Joshua’s plight.
Crowe not only stars in the film but makes his directorial debut. His direction may not instantly mirror that of an auteur, but it’s clear he is no novice and he understands the craft. In many ways Crowe’s approach hearkens back to a classic form of directing. We see it in much of his structural and camera decisions but also in the simplicity of the direction. I also think Crowe should be commended for giving the film a grand, near epic look and feel despite having a less than epic budget. The budget restrictions show themselves in the handful of action sequences but overall it feels like a sweeping, expansive story.
“The Water Diviner” is an entertaining and emotionally satisfying drama but it has sparked some intense controversy. Many people were offended by the film’s failure to address the Armenian genocide. Some pretty heavy allegations were hurled at Crowe and boycotts were called for. But were those feelings justified? Is this the type of film that demands the genocide be addressed? While offering the utmost respect for those effected by the slaughter, I would argue the answer to both questions is no.
“The Water Diviner” doesn’t aim to be a historically thorough film. The story takes place after the war and the central focus is on a father’s loss of his three sons. In many ways the film highlights the futility of war and the devastating personal costs that follow. Crowe shows the post-war through several different perspectives while never taking a side or forming any conclusion. But all of that serves as a backdrop. It’s truly a story of loss and a father coping the best way he can while also struggling with his complicity in his son’s fate. That is the emotional current that drives the film which is why I think the controversy is unwarranted.
Crowe’s direction is solid but even more could be said about his performance. I feel Crowe is sometimes overlooked because we know he is always going to give a strong performance. In this film he is the linchpin and the emotion center. I always enjoy Kurylenko and she is good here. Unfortunately her character is restricted to a fairly obvious side story. Not so for Yılmaz Erdoğan. The Turkish actor and filmmaker gives us an incredibly compelling character and he tells so much through his tired, war-weary eyes.
Some may consider “The Water Diviner” to be a bit too melodramatic and some may struggle with the film’s shifts in tone. Others may get caught up in the well-publicized controversy. Instead I found myself caught up in the story that lies at the heart of the film and I was completely invested in the central character. Russell Crowe has given us a fine movie that once again spotlights his talents as an actor while also introducing us to his talents as a director. It definitely impressed me and he has certainly earned more opportunities behind the camera.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
Right you are Keith, I think the controversy that blew up from this piece was pretty harsh. I stop just short of saying unnecessary because I do not come from that part of the world so I can’t speak on behalf of anyone who felt like their history either went unacknowledged or was perverted in the sake of this story. Moving away from that, I really really liked this. i had anticipated this directorial debut for some time and I was rewarded. I think I was taken aback more by Kurylenko’s part in the film enough to where I couldn’t give it quite as high a rating, but that’s pretty academic stuff. I think Crowe will do well as a director going forward.
I can’t help but think Crowe’s past roles along with the fine directors he has worked with influenced his direction. But that performance – talk about strong. He continues to be one of my very favorite working actors. Glad to hear you appreciated this one as well!
Your opening paragraph is EVERYTHING! Crowe is one of my absolute favorite actors, and he’s the reason I really got into film. This film was really, really well done, and while I did find some tonal issues within it (the romantic sub-plot felt ill developed), the balance he gave to the weight of the subject was really sharp and beautifully crafted. He understood the importance of neutrality in many instances and developed a film that I feel speaks to a universal presence. GREAT review, Keith.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on mine:
Thanks for the comments and for sharing the link. I will absolutely check it out.
You nail it about Crowe. I think there is a perfectly harmony between his direction and performance. The two are perfectly in tune. The guy is always great regardless of the film and even when the material lets him down. He’s a favorite of mine as well. In fact, when I did the first installment of my ‘Greatest’ series, he holds a prominent spot.
I completely see where you are coming from with the romantic sub-plot. I do feel she brings an important balance to his character but she feels so confined in terms of the story. That was my main problem with her.
Great, can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
And I’ll have to check out that Greatest series!
Keith, very nice post. I remember you saying he’s your favorite working actor, so I’m not surprised you favored the film. I’m happy to hear you defend the project as well as his directorial debut. I’ve only read negative reviews and only a handful at that. I did get the feeling was black-balled (like Noah) and put it aside for a future viewing. Now I’m curious again, so you thanks for that.
Thanks so much Cindy. You’re someone I would be extra interested in hearing an opinion from. I really went with this one and now that I’ve seen it twice I’m very comfortable with my score. Hats off to Crowe!
I’ve liked his whole career. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And his great performances are some of my all time favorites. You reminded me I need to revisit A Beautiful Mind. Haven’t watched it in a decade.
Oooh that’s a good one. That’s the performance that woke up a lot of people to Crowe’s dynamic range as an actor. Such a good movie.
I think art only has to contend with itself, and doesn’t owe it to anyone to speak beyond its scope. That controversy was bull. I still didn’t like this movie. It fell way flat for me, but I would never fault it for telling the contained story that it did.
Well said. I think a movie sets its own bounds and should only be confronted if it claims to be something it’s not. This movie didn’t do that at all.
Hi Keith, great review as always. I still haven’t got around to reviewing this but it’s more of a 3.5/5 for me, maybe a 4 if I’m feeling generous. I LOVE Crowe as an actor and he’s definitely the strongest performers here. I’d agree w/ Drew that I’m not sold on the romance, and it seems that Crowe himself is unsure about it too, hence the really awkward interchange between him and Olga. She’s not a particularly strong actress either so that didn’t help (if it were miss Cotillard for example, like in A Good Year, it might’ve been more convincing). But generally I like it, it was emotional and even funny in parts. Believe it or not I actually like Jai Courtney here, never thought that’s possible, ahah.
Sorry for the long comment, now you made me want to review it. I was feeling burnout for a while that there were some films I didn’t feel like reviewing.
No need to every apologize for a long comment. I love hearing insight. 🙂
I fully understand the feelings about the romance angle but I do feel it serves a purpose. I think it brings a balance to the character and in some ways to the movie. I do think it is a little too confined but overall I tend to feel it serves a purpose.
And I am totally with you on Jai Courtney. He was REALLY good here which caught me completely by surprise. I was never expecting that. Hopefully…just hopefully…this is a turn in the right direction for him.