Russell Crowe comes out swinging with his directorial debut, the ambitious wartime melodrama, The Water Diviner. While there’s no denying the clarity of his artistic vision, the unwieldy story eventually overwhelms him. The stunning visuals and strong performances can’t overcome the film’s mismatched halves, which ping between brooding character study and simplistic actioner. Ultimately, there’s much to like about this promising debut, but it lacks the emotional wallop that Crowe intended.
Struggling to survive the Australian dustbowl of 1919, Connor (Crowe) is a humble farmer who wanders the vast desert searching for unseen pockets of water buried beneath the surface. He’s remarkably adept at this ancient, some would say mystical art. What he truly seeks, however, continues to elude him; the final resting place of his three sons. The three boys, all soldiers in the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), were killed on the same day during the calamitous 1915 Battle of Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey. Connor can only look away when his wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) berates him, “You can find water, but you can’t even find your own children!” This is the sort of heavy-handed dialogue we get throughout Diviner, which is chock full of narrative sledgehammers.
Four years after the battle that killed his boys, Connor departs for Turkey on a mission of closure. Despite meeting formidable resistance from military bureaucrats, he accumulates a number of unlikely allies. The beautiful Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), a hotelier who straddles the line between Ottoman tradition and European refinement, and her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) indoctrinate Connor into Istanbul’s complicated culture, while two Turkish soldiers, Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) and Cemal (Cem Yilmaz), help him navigate a volatile political landscape. Given the superficial treatment of these characters, their assistance feels a bit too convenient; as if they’re waiting in the wings for a chance to help Connor.
It’s rare that a movie would benefit from a longer running time, but Diviner is about 45 minutes shy of effectively telling its story. There’s a lot going on here, both above ground and below the surface. There are hopes and dreams barely explored, regrets and doubts only inferred, and crippling pain brushed aside by lazy epiphanies. The promise of a slow-burning first half, spent skulking inside the mind of a tortured father looking for redemption, is squandered by the second half’s awkward action and tepid political intrigue. It’s a bait-and-switch that leaves you feeling unsatisfied and emotionally cheated.
Visually, Crowe has style to burn. Quick cuts, languorous tracking shots, and exquisitely choreographed battle sequences give Diviner an expansive (and expensive) feel, despite its relatively modest budget of $22 million. Connor’s early efforts at building a well and a terrific CGI dust storm highlight Crowe’s apparent knack for visual storytelling. Helping him along are the sumptuous images of veteran cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie. Whether exploring the desolation of the Australian desert, or luxuriating in the ancient beauty of a Turkish temple, Crowe takes great pains to illustrate his story’s landscape.
The nuances of story management, however, prove more elusive for the first-time director. Working from a script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios (adapted from the novel by Anastasios and his wife), Crowe ventures a bit too far into the thematic weeds. Lots of meaty ideas are introduced—a father confronting his guilt, a woman considering her place in Ottoman society, a soldier weighing his duty against personal honor—only to be resolved by expedient twists or cloying sentimentality. Tone and pacing seem to shift with each plot point; one minute we’re knee deep in a quiet character drama, and the next minute we’re hopping trains and dodging bullets like Indiana Jones. Crowe and his screenwriters employ a disjointed narrative with flashbacks and dream-like sequences, but none of it offers any genuine insight into the characters. It’s just more story… more plot… more stuff to clog the lifeblood of the film; a broken father making amends for not protecting his sons.
Crowe gets wonderful performances from his actors, particularly Erdogan and Yilmaz, as the former enemies who must now be trusted as friends. Each conveys a world-weary calm that plays nicely against hot-blooded stereotypes. Kurylenko, too, has moments of sublime quiet, but her shallow characterization only hints at the complexity of her situation. Her story is just as interesting as Connor’s, but here, she’s merely the beguiling, inaccessible object of desire. As Connor, Crowe affords himself nicely, though it would be nice to see a bit more emotion from the film’s emotional core. The line between subtle and non-existent is very thin, indeed.
The Water Diviner couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a sprawling epic or a tidy crowd pleaser. There’s nothing wrong with either of those options, of course, but they make for uneasy bedfellows. Alleged historical inaccuracies and dramatic license aside, this is a well-meaning look at the price paid by those living behind the frontlines. Crowe shows promise as a director, reaching just beyond his grasp to give us an interesting miss. His script let him down this time, but it’s doubtful he will make that same mistake twice.