Russell Crowe directs, stars in lackluster period drama

Set amidst the aftermath of the Battle of Gallipoli, a moment of defining national self-image for both Australia and Turkey, The Water Diviner could have been a profound exploration of the senseless destructiveness of war. It could have been a gripping discovery of the potential adverse outcomes of reflexive masculinity. It could have even been a tender meditation on romantic communication across ethnic and cultural boundaries.

Alas, the feature directorial debut of actor Russell Crowe is none of those things. The torpid war-time drama aspires to little more than a paint-by-numbers domestic drama played out against a rich historical backdrop that it introduces and then pretty much ignores. The breathtaking Turkish (and Australian) scenery and the brutal war depictions lose all their power when they are merely window-dressing for an actor-turned-director’s vanity project.

THE WATER DIVINER

Olga Kurylenko is beautiful and appealing as Ayshe, the Turkish widow in whose Istanbul hotel Connor stays. (Photo Warner Bros. Pictures)

Crowe plays Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer and father whose three young adult sons were casualties of the Gallipoli Campaign, an ill-conceived (and costly) British attack on a strategic Turkish peninsula during World War I. Connor travels to Gallipoli in a redemptive attempt to find his sons’ bodies and bring them back to their Australian home. Along the way, he becomes embroiled in a new dispute between Turkey and Greece; he also encounters simmering tensions with his Turkish hosts still harboring understandable resentments over the past military conflict.

None of those promising themes are any more than a backdrop for screenwriters Andrew Wright and Andrew Anastasios’ tired retread of pioneer stoicism and unlikely romance. And their shopworn story finds no respite from Crowe’s stolid pacing and inattentive direction. Andrew Lesnie captures some truly beautiful images of both Turkey and Australia that can’t quite compensate for the tiresome story in the foreground. And David Hirshfelder’s score is frequently overbearing.

Whatever happened to the magnetic, brooding screen presence that was once Russell Crowe? His carefully controlled intensity in L.A. Confidential, A Beautiful Mind, and Gladiator has given way in recent years to impassive boredom. What a waste.

On the plus side, Olga Kurylenko is beautiful and appealing as Ayshe, the Turkish widow in whose Istanbul hotel Connor stays. Similarly, Dylan Geordiades breathes some much-needed energy into the story as Ayshe’s son Orhan, desperate for a father figure. Turkish filmmaker and actor Yilmaz Erdogan as a retired major turned nationalist displays the genuine gravitas to which Crowe can only aspire.

The Water Diviner never reaches the level of appallingly bad, but it’s one of those films that frustrates critics and audiences alike because it could have been, and should have been, much better than it is. A real disappointment.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.