Russell Crowe’s directorial debut shared the Best Film award with The Babadook at last year’s AACTA (Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts) Awards, and understandably so from a culturally significant stance. The Water Diviner manages to bring to the forefront the Gallipoli Campaign, and its aftermath of soldiers trying to locate and retrieve the bodies of men who had perished during the campaign.
The film’s story is based upon a true footnote narrative that was discovered by co-writer Andrew Anastasios in the journals of one of the lieutenant’s that was on that excursion; the footnote read: “One old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son’s grave. We did what we could for him and sent him on his way.” And, as the film claims this to be based upon a true story, such creative freedom and manipulations might be seen as problematic if the rest of it is an amalgamation of various testimonies. In short, the film is indeed problematic.
Set in 1919, Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe), an Australian water diviner, sets out to fulfil the wish of his deceased wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) in retrieving their missing three sons, who were sent to war to fight in the Gallipoli campaign. Upon arriving in Turkey he stays at a hotel run by recently widowed Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), where a quasi-romance begins to quasi-blossom, and meets her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), whom he befriends and acts as a quasi-father figure. Also in Turkey he befriends officer Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogen) who agrees to help locate the bodies of Connor’s three missing sons.
This film attempts to tackle an important and major chapter in the nation’s history – for both Turkey and Australia – and is definitely a bold debut for Crowe. It is a shame that the film’s flaws come very early in the narrative. It is a muddled mess in its attempt to lay down the historic foundation and to contextualise the Gallipoli campaign to those unfamiliar with it. The film throws a number of dates in the hope that the audience will grasp at the facts before Connor’s narrative takes over. This leap from cold facts to an emotional alignment with Connor proves to be at the film’s detriment for it then scrambles for cohesion and engagement. It then relies greatly on montages, plot contrivances, and simplified caricatures for a complete narrative.
These flaws could be overlooked if the romance between Ayshe and Connor wasn’t in equal parts nauseating and forced. The film attempts to have its cake and eat it by respecting, and negating, cultural customs and Connor’s devotion to his (very) recently deceased wife. Their friendship works, as does Connor and Hasan’s, but when characters’ agency is omitted for plot convenience it becomes too simplistic and contrived to accept.
It is in the flashback sequences that one is able to witness the film’s great strengths – Crowe, Anastasios, and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie emphasise the horrors of war with such striking visuals that one has to wonder, “Why is this not the film?” The deaths, the untold bloodshed, and the desperation are all there to witness, if only briefly. They offer glimpse insights into the historical, the personal, and the psychological consequences of war, and are conveyed with such precision, that one would have wished the film would spend more time covering this theme.
The Water Diviner is a flawed and problematic debut from Russell Crowe. The tacked-on romance, the simplified caricatures, and the melodramatic set pieces juxtapose too greatly against the well-executed battle scenes. One will either remember the corny moments in Connor’s narrative or the horrors of war in the flashbacks; either way, one will exit wondering if perhaps less would have been more.