"Water Diviner" To End All WWI Films (At Least For A While) Review

For me, this place is one big grave.

With the continuous 100 year anniversaries that will span the next four years, one would expect some epic films on the many facets of The Great War, World War I, the War to End All Wars. Mostly, this has found itself on cable television with documentaries like The World Wars (2014) that controversially suggested there might be a through-line from World War I causing in some respect its sequel, World War II. Russell Crowe took this opportunity to make his directorial debut with The Water Diviner (2015), set from the perspective of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) at and after the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. If its brethren, which are almost certainly forthcoming, stay at or above the quality of The Water Diviner, then we may well learn a few things about war and the people it leaves behind. While being sufficiently entertained, of course.

Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe) is an Australian farmer with a particular set of skills. He can walk around his unmoist property and, with the aid of two sticks, called dowsing or divining rods, finds groundwater which he can then pump where he needs it. Out there on the frontier with his wife (Jacqueline McKenzie) and three sons (Ryan Corr, James Fraser, and Ben O'Toole) life is quite lovely, whiling away the evenings reading Arabian Nights. Then, in 1914, war intervenes and his boys go off to fight for King and Country. There, at Gallipoli, along with thousands of others, they are cut down by Turkish forces. His wife cannot accept their death and life deteriorates until, finally, she dies and he sets off for Turkey to find and bring his sons bodies home.

After the war, Connor begins his search in Istanbul, meeting Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), before going to Gallipoli. At Gallipoli, the army is sifting through the bodies, identifying the bones that had lay there for four years. The project is headed by Lt. Col. Hughes (Jai Courtney) with the help of Maj. Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), who had led the Turkish forces there (making him persona non grata with the Anzacs). At every turn, Connor is thwarted and humbled in his search for his sons and life in a foreign land.

The material from writers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios is pretty middling. In the hands of a low budget journeyman, it would have been slightly laughable, just another bargain bin DVD. But with strong performances and an eye for a moving scene, The Water Diviner becomes a solid bit of entertainment. With an extra 30 minutes and less myopic attention on Crowe's character, you'd have a grand epic on your hands. The film spots some fresh ground in post-war Turkish politics, but doesn't explore it beyond a nearly-satisfying backdrop. That kind of film, like A Passage to India (1984), would have been a harder sit for most viewers, however.

Russell Crowe is a dependable hand at the tiller. In my review of Lost River (2014), I mentioned how strange Ryan Gosling's project was and surprising in being made at all. Crowe's The Water Diviner is exactly the opposite in that it holds closely to the actor-turned-director formula: conventionally shot, conventionally told, with the star as the lead. It's not magic, that's how you guarantee a movie gets made by being conventional and bankable. Crowe has either the wit of good fortune to have cast this thing incredibly well. Erdogan, who you might have seen in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), plays the role of the noble enemy to perfection and Crowe is the exact blend of charm and vulnerability that has made him as successful as he has been. He wanted to make a film about the humanity behind the war and with the exception of the bloodthirsty Greeks and officious English, he succeeded. Hard not to poke at the English when you're Australian, I'd imagine.

Bonus features

Making of featurette and "The Battle of Gallipoli" (another featurette).

"The Water Diviner" is on sale July 28, 2015 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Russell Crowe. Written by Andrew Knight, Andrew Anastasios. Starring Olga Kurylenko, Russell Crowe, Yilmaz Erdogan.

Jason Ratigan • Staff Writer

A lawyer-turned-something-else with a strong appreciation for film and television.  He knows he can't read every great book ever written, but seeing every good movie ever made is absolutely doable.  Check out his other stuff on Wordpress.


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