Film review: The Water Diviner finds beauty through tragedy

Russell Crowe (right) makes his directorial debut and stars in The Water Diviner, an Australian epic that unfolds around the World War I Gallipoli Campaign. Photo: Warner Bros. Russell Crowe (right) makes his directorial debut and stars in The Water Diviner, an Australian epic that unfolds around the World War I Gallipoli Campaign. Photo: Warner Bros.

Nearly a century after the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-1916, the national consciousness of both Turkey and Australia remain intertwined. The lingering effects of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) campaign led directly to the rise of the Turkish Nationalist Movement, while Anzac Day is considered a commemoration of a defining moment in Australian national identity (though the exact meaning of the day has become controversial).

This shared memory of trauma and triumph serves as the basis for Russell Crowe’s historical epic The Water Diviner, which tells the story of an Australian farmer, Joshua Connor (Crowe), who travels to the scene of the battle to retrieve the bodies of his sons so they can be buried alongside their recently deceased mother. Along the way, he encounters every level of Australian military bureaucracy, witnesses the changing social and political sensibilities in the soon-to-be-former Ottoman Empire, and questions the meaning of “home” when life’s most meaningful experiences happened halfway across the globe.

The first thing you will notice about The Water Diviner is that it’s the best-looking movie you’ve ever seen directed this sloppily. But as the story speeds along, you’ll be surprised at how little you mind. As a technician, Crowe may have bitten off more than he can chew with battle scenes and train shoot-outs, plus most of the dialogue is hopelessly hokey. But as a storyteller, Crowe deserves praise for understanding the depth of the ideas and historical significance of the period, giving the film a quality reminiscent of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. While nowhere near as interesting as Yuri Zhivago, Connor shares a sense of grounded spiritualism with Pasternak’s hero that alternately endears and aggravates political and military operatives, and men of competing ideologies are refreshingly defined by their strength of character, not their beliefs.

Every scene in the film is 75 percent effective; if it attempts four ideas in a given moment, it’s succeeding at three and failing at one. A key moment that encapsulates the film’s strengths and weaknesses is when Connor arrives in Gallipoli. As the title indicates, Connor is a water diviner, meaning he has a knack for locating underground wells. He is therefore somehow able to use this intuition to locate the spot where two of his boys were shot, much to the surprise of the professional military trackers.

This sort of contrived moment is typical of The Water Diviner, but so is where the scene goes next: A soldier plants the idea in Connor’s head that the nearby Turkish officer who is cooperating with the search is responsible for the boys’ death. Connor lunges and is repelled, reminded by the stately Turkish man that they were on the defensive and also suffered heavy losses, while the Australian commanding officer reminds the instigator that the war is now over. It’s a potent moment, but not in a way that contributes to the central narrative of Connor’s search for his family.

Occasionally, the film feels like propaganda for the current incarnation of the Turkish state, vaunting the story of its founding. The British and Greek armies are cast in unflattering roles, while the Australian and Turkish armies are technically rivals but earn each other’s respect. This point of view is somewhat understandable given Australia’s role in World War I, and is likely what propelled the film to massive critical and commercial success domestically, tying with The Babadook for Best Picture at the Australian equivalent of the Academy Awards. The performances are excellent all around, yet the lead character is a well-portrayed husk that is only made interesting by the people he encounters on his journey. Despite its intelligence and good intentions, no matter how enjoyable it is at times, it never escapes the fact that in a movie called The Water Diviner, the parts that have to do with actual water divining are the least interesting.

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