The Water Diviner
Directed by Russell Crowe. Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Isabel Lucas, Yılmaz Erdoğan, Cem Yılmaz, Megan Gale, Deniz Akdeniz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Damon Herriman, Ryan Corr, Dan Wyllie, Robert Mammone, James Fraser, Michael Dorman, Steve Bastoni, Salih Kalyon. Written by Andrew Anastasios, Andrew Knight.
A bereaved Australian father travels to Turkey to bury his three killed-in-action sons in The Water Diviner, the feature-length directing debut from actor Russell Crowe, who also stars in the leading role.
Earnest and well-intentioned – if also formulaic and expectedly maudlin – the compelling premise is given a surprisingly relaxed, somewhat low-key treatment by the first-time director. Still, that does little to diminish the raw power of this story. The film won Best Picture at this year’s AACTA awards, the Aussie version of the Oscars.
In the film’s disarming trench warfare opening, Turkish military officer Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan, who’s excellent here) defiantly leads his troops into battle at Gallipoli in early 1916 – only to find that ANZAC troops have just evacuated, rigging weapons to go off to buy them some time, Rambo-style.
While an opening title scrawl claims to be “based on a true story,” Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight’s script was inspired by just a single line of correspondence from Australian officer Cyril Hughes. Part of the Imperial War Graves unit, Hughes was tasked with cleaning up the battlefield after the Gallipoli campaign ended, and at one point wrote “One old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son’s grave.”
In The Water Diviner, Jai Courtney stars in a supporting role as Hughes, who works together with Major Hasan to locate the bodies of ANZAC troops after the fighting has stopped. Their task – and uneasy alliance – is one of the most interesting things about the film, because of the all-too-real situation it describes.
And then there’s Russell Crowe’s Joshua Connor, the fictional character inspired by that single line of correspondence. In his first scene, Connor does indeed divine the presence of water, and single-handedly constructs a well in a no-dialogue sequence that recalls Daniel Day-Lewis digging for oil at the beginning of There Will Be Blood.
Apart from another sequence where Connor teaches a young boy the art of dowsing, that’s about the last we’ll hear of water divining for the rest of the film; still, it’s a metaphor for the character’s overall journey that becomes almost supernatural at one point.
Connor’s three sons (played in flashbacks by Ben O’Toole, Ryan Corr and James Fraser) died at Gallipoli, and if that wasn’t enough, his wife (Isabel Lucas) – who blames her husband for sending their kids off to war – commits suicide shortly thereafter. Joshua’s final promise to his dead spouse is that he’ll retrieve the bodies of the three boys so they can be buried next to their mother.
And that’s exactly what he does, heading to Turkey and fighting through red tape and bureaucracy to force his way to Gallipoli. He eventually ends up working with Hughes and Hasan – the “enemy” officer who fought against his sons – to locate their bodies. These scenes are where The Water Diviner shines, showcasing an aspect of war that is overlooked by most films.
But as if this wasn’t an interesting enough story as it was, there’s another subplot that gets an equal amount of screentime. It involves a now-single Turkish mother (Olga Kurylenko) – whose husband was also killed at Gallipoli – and the young son (Dylan Georgiades) that forms a budding relationship with Connor when he stays at their hotel.
We know exactly where this storyline is headed, and while there are few surprises along the way first-time director Crowe handles the formulaic aspects of his film in agreeably crowd-pleasing fashion. The Water Diviner doesn’t fully deliver on its powerful premise, but it’s an old-fashioned tearjerker that offers its audience a heaping of levity and hope along the way.
It looks outstanding, too: cinematography by Lord of the Rings vet Andrew Lesnie gorgeously captures the authentic locations in Australia and Turkey.
Also see: Peter Weir’s excellent Gallipoli, which starred Mel Gibson and Mark Lee as two young sprinters sent to fight in the WWI battleground.