Rarely does a movie pull you in so quickly and so deeply as The Water Diviner. This is one from the heart for Russell Crowe, making an impressive feature-directing debut at 51. Crowe also takes the lead role, Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer who treks to Turkey four years after the World War I battles at Gallipoli to find his three MIA sons. It was the dying wish of his wife, Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie), to bring the boys home, even if just for burial on their farm.
Inspired by a true story, the script, by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, channels war sagas such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Peter Weir’s homegrown Gallipoli to sometimes conventional and sentimental effect. But Crowe’s watchful eye as actor and director keeps harsh reality in focus. There are harrowing flashbacks to the doomed battle in which Australian and New Zealand army troops were slaughtered by Turkish forces. One scene, showing the Connor brothers — Arthur (Ryan Corr), Henry (Ben O’Toole) and Edward (James Fraser) — on the bloody field, is scarring in its intensity.
The film’s title refers to Connor’s mystical gift as a water diviner, being able to locate water and other treasures under the parched ground. That he may also locate the bones of his sons adds symbolic weight that Crowe wisely does not emphasize.
Connor’s first job on his odyssey is to rout obstacles and get himself to Gallipoli. In Constantinople, he books a hotel run by a Muslim widow, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko, beautiful even by Hollywood standards). The script’s attempt to build a bond between Connor and Ayshe and her young son (Dylan Georgiades) is contrived but well played.
The film finds its grieving soul in Connor’s relationship with the enemy, Major Hasan (an outstanding Yilmaz Erdogan), a Turkish officer who helps Connor jump roadblocks erected by the British and by Aussie officer Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney, excellent), who’s in charge of the Imperial War Graves unit. The major has his reasons for helping Connor: “He’s the only father who came looking.”
In The Water Diviner, Crowe strives to strike a universal chord about the futility of war. Simplistic? Maybe. But in crafting a film about the pain a parent feels after losing a child in battle, Crowe transcends borders and politics. It’s not war being honored here, it’s sacrifice and inconsolable loss. I’d call that a substantial achievement.