“The Water Diviner” is an Australian/American production that was a vanity project for Russell Crowe. He made his directorial debut with the film. It was loosely based on the eponymous book by Andrew Anastasios and Dr. Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios. The movie was “inspired by true events” which means that the Anastasios’ grew a mighty oak out of a story about an old Australian man who came to Turkey to search for his son’s grave. Their research did not find any facts about the mystery man, but they still wrote a novel based on it. And then someone decided to make a movie inspired by the fictional book.
The movie opens during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915. A Turkish attack across no man’s land gives us combatus interruptus when they reach the ANZAC trenches because the Australians have withdrawn. Meanwhile back in Australia four years later, Joshua Conner (Crowe) is finding water and digging a well. Conner is a water diviner (or dowser). (Water divining is a pseudoscience that usually involves the use of a Y or L shaped stick or rod to locate underground water.) It has been four years since his three sons were killed in the war at Gallipoli. His wife has gone insane and blames him for losing their kids. “You can find water, but you can’t find your own children. You lost them.” If you were hoping this would be a laugh riot… The movie uses flashbacks to fill in the boys’ arc. They left for the war like every other Australian volunteer – enthusiastically. They ended up in the Dardanelles where no one kept their enthusiasm very long.
Conner promises his wife he will bring the boys’ home so it’s off to Turkey. There he meets a street urchin and his comely mom Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko). A rather predictable romance ensues. She helps him get to the area where his sons died. The ANZACs are in the process of disinterring bodies and don’t want some meddlesome father poking his nose in. Clicheish military bureaucracy blocks humanism every time in cinema. However, Conner meets a sympathetic Turkish Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) who wants to help (so the Turkish reputation in Australia can be ameliorated). He could be a bit guilt-ridden because he might have been responsible for the boys’ deaths. (Literally, in one case.) We find out about those deaths via flashback. Apparently the Australian army had a policy of getting brothers killed together. Or were they all killed? Hasan thinks one of them might have been taken captive and could still be alive. That would be great for Australio-Turkish relations and for the audience’s desire to leave the theater with a glow. Hasan is willing to help Conner if Conner is willing to tag along for the defeating of a Greek invasion. Hey audience, would a train ambush wake you up? As far as finding the son who felt no need to inform his poor mom that he is still alive, Conner will have to use his paternal instincts. Not to worry, he has an inner divining rod.
“The Water Diviner” is a mediocre movie. I can imagine Crowe saying “I did not realize directing was so difficult” and “man, that leading man is a dick to work with”. Actually, his debut is competent. He throws in some showy overhead shots. The nonlinear structure works well. He gets a good performance out of himself, but the rest of the cast is middling. The romance between Crowe and Kurylenko is a fizzle. They have little chemistry. The romance is also lamely predictable. Not only is it obvious from the moment they meet that they are destined, but the screenplay throws in the trope of the outsider rescuing the damsel from her culture’s unenlightened treatment of women. In fact, the script is not just in full foreshadowing mode for the romance. Although it starts depressing, it quickly shifts to marching towards a happy ending. There are some twists along the way, but they are manipulative. Unrealistic things have to happen to get to happily ever after. It is more of an after-war movie than a war movie. The action is limited in scope, but leaves you wanting more. Certainly the movie could have used more. Most of the movie is like Conner – passionless.
The movie is not strong historically. Anyone who does not research the facts could conclude that it is fairly close to a true story. Although the narrative is predictable and the characters are stereotyped, the story is not totally unbelievable. Other than the part where Edward does not bother to contact his grieving parents. And the part where Conner locates him through his fatherly instinct. The movie is centered on the Gallipoli Campaign and it assumes we know the history of the campaign. This is problematic with American audiences. Unless you have seen “Gallipoli”, you probably have little knowledge that the boys were pawns in a disastrous British gambit to invade the Ottoman Empire to knock it out of the Central Powers. The landing quickly got bogged down and the Turkish defenses proved unbreakable. The ANZAC forces suffered heavily before the campaign was mercifully abandoned. This event became the leading exemplar in Australia of the futility of warfare and the ill use of its young men in the Great War. The film has a revisionist theme. It intends to show the Turkish perspective. As Crowe mentioned in an interview, the Turks were defending their country. He goes out of his way to make the Turks sympathetic. Hasan is a character that probably could not have existed in an Australian movie in the 20th Century. Mission accomplished as the movie was popular in Turkey. It did not do well overall at the box office, however. It was not helped by the controversy involving what was considered a too positive take on the Turks. Critics brought up the Armenian and Assyrian Genocides of 1915. There may have been Hasans, but he was not representative.
Australia has a reputation for bringing war movie lovers some good fare. “The Water Diviner” is not one of its better offerings. Since war movies are rare these days, it is something of a disappointment. It certainly does not live up to Mel Gibson’s “Gallipoli”. But then, Gibson did not direct that movie. Crowe should get credit for making a movie on a subject that he had a passion for, but the story is just not very strong. As a war movie, it does not deliver the action. As a romance, it is ho hum. And as a mystery, it’s mediocre.
GRADE = C