Crowe's first directing gig is a big, soppy, enjoyable mess
Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner is corny and ambitious, flirting with the epic while teetering on the brink of TV movie melodrama. Crowe directs his first film like a man worried that he might never get the chance again, painting a war drama, historical adventure and cross-culture romance with urgent, chunky brushstrokes. He also draws the most Russell Crowe-like performance since Gladiator from his leading man, Russell Crowe.
Crowe plays Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer, water diviner and all round good egg. His wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) is grief-stricken after losing all three of their sons at the battle of Gallipoli in the first World War. Eliza tops herself, and Connor heads for Turkey to recover the bodies of their boys.
On arrival, Connor is hijacked by an impish young lad, who leads him to a glorious old hotel run by his mother Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and his stern uncle Omer (Steve Bastoni). Ayshe initially treats Connor with hostility, as her husband was lost on the same battlefield as his sons, but predictably a romantic frisson develops between them.
Connor’s intention to reach Gallipoli is treated with derision by a pompous British officer. Having been stonewalled by the authorities, Connor hires a local fisherman to get him onto the beaches of Gallipoli, where he is greeted with exasperation by the men heading the war graves commission, Colonel Hughes (Jai Courtney) and Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan). After using his water divining skills to locate the spot where his sons fell, Hasan reveals that one of his boys was taken prisoner and may still be alive…
Crowe’s approach is deeply respectful and even handed, opening the film with the Turks in their trenches and taking the stance that in a conflict as calamitous as the “Great” War, everyone lost, regardless of nation or religion. This is not a particularly original standpoint, but is a worthy reminder on the centenary of WWI, in our era of fractious religious and racial tensions.
The film is deeply reverential of Turkish culture, in the manner of a holidaymaker who had a really, really good time and is now determined to learn a bit of the culture and lingo. It is always great to see Istanbul on the big screen, and Andrew Lesnie’s camera lusts after every exotic detail of the movie’s period setting. There’s no panorama worth having unless it is sunset over the mosques of the Golden Horn; there’s not a pillow, curtain or bedcover which isn’t resplendant with intoxicating Middle Eastern design; the frame is so saturated with colour that a visit to the miraculous Blue Mosque makes the real Blue Mosque look monochrome by comparison.
As beautiful as the images are, it all seems a bit too glossy – the Australian segment looks like a beer commercial, and some of the Istanbul street scenes look so staged that I was half expecting Roger Moore’s Bond to come tearing through in a golf buggy, sending men in fezzes diving out of the way.
The tone of the film is deeply uneven, working best when Connor is on his adventures, and grinding to a halt during the predictable romantic subplot. Crowe has never been very convincing with the love stuff, and has zero chemistry with the ravishing Kurylenko.
This time would have been better spent if the movie was an all-out adventure, because certain legs of Connor’s journey seems rushed. We could also do with some more time with the three boys. Apart from a couple of flashbacks, they get very little screen time until a late, harrowing scene on the battlefield. For a film never shy about tugging the heart strings, the emotional payoff would have been greater if we’d got to know the three sons as characters.
Performance-wise, it’s Crowe’s show, drawing on all the qualities that made Maximus Decimus Meridius such a magnetic character in Gladiator. He’s a humble, grieving family man, with a core reserve of nobility, drawing on his grave resolve to see his quest out to the end.
Crowe’s passion for The Water Diviner is obvious, and his sheer determination drags the film through all the contrived, cliched and redundant moments. In the end, it is impossible to ignore the movie’s good will, and if you can switch off your cynicism you should have a really good time. It’s an absorbing Dad’s Own adventure and a shamelessly sentimental yarn.