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