The Water Diviner is undeniably a professional film. It carries the weight of heavy production, from the period scenery to the severe drama to the presence of Russell Crowe. The film marks the directorial debut of the man who was once Maximus. And, with the earthy tones and stark landscape of Crowe's frames, it's plain to see the influence of Ridley Scott, who directed Gladiator and another Middle Eastern film, Kingdom of Heaven. But, Crowe's affectations aside, he's made a movie of passion and substance that doesn't quite deliver the emotional heft of its promise, but it's close.
Three years after the battle of Gallipoli, in 1919, a water diviner locates and digs a well, triumphantly. He will use his uncanny investigative scent again, under much dire circumstances. Joshua Connor (Crowe) and his wife lost their three sons to Gallipoli during World War I and she has never recovered. Dressing empty beds, she lashes out at her husband. The next morning, she's gone too. Suicide.
Overcome with grief, Joshua vows to find their sons as a last promise to his poor wife and bury them next to her. It's with this heavy weight and enormous purpose The Water Diviner begins.
As good as the film looks, (it was shot by Andrew Lesnie, the Oscar winner behind The Lord of the Rings franchise) there's a rushed sense of narrative that hurts how the movie begins. We play catch up and figure out Joshua's sons are dead, but we only get to know them through flashbacks that come later. Lesnie's camerawork, however, changes with the transitions. The war footage is bleak and palpable, and the vast exteriors of Australia and Turkey are grand and sweeping.
What ensues is a frustrating and trial-filled journey. Joshua is persistently told to turn around by Anzac troops, led by Lt Colonel Hughes (Jai Courtney) and Captain Brindley (Dan Wyllie). At his hotel, the owner, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) tells him Gallipoli is nothing but dust. But Joshua ignores everyone with steely resolve and finds compassion in the unlikely form of a Turkish Major, Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) who poignantly reminds Hughes that Joshua was the only father to come looking for his sons.
Hasan's help is unlikely because he's the enemy. The Anzacs helped the Allied forces against Hasan and the Ottomans and the Major is tasked with helping the remaining Anzac troops uncover and identify their dead. Finding three in particular amongst the thousands killed seems an impossible task, but the noble Hasan only sees a father, not an enemy, in Joshua.
Their relationship becomes the heart of the film. Crowe is typically admirable and he brings a dignity to Joshua that defies petty emotions like anger and despair. He finds a kindred spirit in Hasan, the highly-respected Turk, but Joshua cannot forget it was his troops who murdered his boys and the Water Diviner lashes out at him in one scene of weakness. Erdogan is stellar in the role. His unblinking intensity belies a kindness that surprises Joshua, and their tentative bond gives the film hope.
Hasan also gives Joshua hope by revealing one of his boys may have been taken prisoner. Suddenly, the film shifts and Joshua finds glorious new purpose. Crowe thrives off the drama. He's naturally suited to the grieving father role and provides resolve, stubbornness, and fortitude in equal measure. As a filmmaker, Crowe shows he's not just directing to direct. Water is a recurring motif and the film is awash in themes of love, loyalty, and most of all, guilt. He's capable, if not old-fashioned. Parts of this movie seem filmed out of time. And he hasn't grasped how to construct a gripping drama. The Water Diviner is awash in sentimentality, led by the romantic subplot with Ayshe and Joshua's silly friendship with her spritely son. Big chunks of the film are tedious and unnecessary. But there's a likability to this movie, and Crowe can thank his cinematographer and cast.