Exactly why actor Russell Crowe decided to step behind the camera is somewhat hard to fathom, judging from the result of a directorial debut that is literally all over the place. To be fair, I have seen much worse debut efforts - and some of them directed by vastly more experienced helmers - than Mr. Crowe's. But for all the nice touches the actor brings to this tale of World War I, The Water Diviner resolves itself in an somewhat schizophrenic old-fashionedly maudlin melodrama crossed with a wish-fulfillment Boy's Own adventure for grown-ups, filled to the brim with peripatetic, only-in-the-movies developments.
Though anchored in a strong enough premise that evokes the Antipodean trauma of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, The Water Diviner quickly crumbles into a handsomely mounted but seriously unbalanced free-for-all seasoned with a few sprinkles of magical realism. Four years after Gallipoli, where his three soldier sons all died, Outback farmer Joshua Connor (played appropriately gruffly by Mr. Crowe himself) travels to Turkey to bring back home their bodies to rest alongside their mother.
Once there, he finds the British Army most unhelpful and the War Graves unit overwhelmed by the need to dig up and identify a quarter million dead bodies. Connor's "water divining" abilities help find the bodies of two of the boys, but it's anyone's guess why this is then quickly forgotten as the film proceeds and he calls on a sympathetic Turkish officer (a wonderful Yilmaz Erdogan) to help him locate the missing son.
The first half of The Water Diviner is the best - both the battle scenes, shot with a brutal, no-nonsense directness, and the post-war episodes at Gallipoli, where the film attains a sort of mournful, sober grace and a bone-tired weariness that Mr. Crowe handles smartly. But it's a short-lived truce, since the plot quickly unravels as Connor becomes intrigued by his Istambul hostess (an unconvincing Olga Kurylenko), then finds himself involved in the Turkish-Greek rivalry fights going on in the meantime. As it does, The Water Diviner turns into a would-be saga striving for a gravitas and resonance that the plot's popular/populist developments seem to work against.
Not even the occasional smart flourishes - such as the use of the Arabian Nights as a recurrent, but seriously underused motif - and the general technical competence save it from being a clumsy, awkward, well-meaning mess, with enough ideas for three or four movies thrown away in a single one.
THE WATER DIVINER
Australia, USA, 2014
Cast Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Jai Courtney
Director Mr. Crowe; screenwriters Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios; cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (colour, widescreen); composers David Hirschfelder, Ludovico Einaudi, Richard Tognetti and Lisa Gerrard; designer Christopher Kennedy; costumes Tess Schofield; editor Matt Villa; producers Andrew Mason, Keith Rodger and Troy Lum; production companies Ratpac Entertainment, Seven Network Australia, Hopscotch Features and Fear of God Films in association with Megiste Films, DC Tour, EJM Productions and Axphon
Screened April 13th 2015, Lisbon