Russell Crowe’s “The Water Diviner” might be seen as just another film struggling to get a look from American audiences during a spring movie season dominated by the latest installments in the “Avengers” and “Furious” franchises.
But for the film community Down Under, and especially first-time director Crowe, the war epic amounts to something much larger – another chance for Australia to reassert itself as a maker of mass-appeal films and for the actor to shift from leading man to the man leading production.
Crowe did not try to downplay the stakes — or his ambition, at age 51, to shift at least a portion of his career to behind the camera — in an interview before the film’s American premiere last week.
“That’s the gamble, man. It’s three years of my life. And that’s what’s on the line,” he said outside the TCL Chinese Theater. “The two things that come out of this, if it gets a [good] commercial result, is simply the investors I have will roll over their original investment. And I’ll get to do it again.”
Crowe said that, if the film can improve on its solid opening last year in Australia, he has other projects he’s ready to helm. He didn’t name them, but said, “It means that I have kind of won back control of my life, having been a gun-for-hire actor for 25 years.”
Crowe’s native Australia also would like to win back a measure of control or, more precisely, market share. Since the New Wave of the 1970s and 1980s — when films like “Mad Max,” “Picnic At Hanging Rock” and “The Year of Living Dangerously” routinely penetrated the American conscious — productions from the land of Oz mostly have struggled to find audiences outside the country.
Even films that critics raved about — like “Animal Kingdom” (2010) or “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (1994) — remained somewhat below the radar when they debuted in America.
“That’s a big change from the 1970s and afterward, for a time, when they did mainstream business, not just arthouse business,” said David Stratton, critic for the Australian newspaper and author of two books on the nation’s films.
Stratton called “The Water Diviner” “a really bold attempt to break that kind of situation and to make a big, popular film that would play in multiplexes here and hopefully find an audience overseas. And I think that was a pretty bold thing to do.”
The longtime critic said the film will be “very, very closely watched” by the Australian film community to see if a movie that strives for a grand scale, by Aussie standards, can bring in viewers north of the Equator.
“The Water Diviner” cost $22.5 million to make, hefty by Aussie standards but a relative pittance in the U.S. Released December 26 in Australia, it became the biggest homegrown film of 2014. Worldwide, it has made $11.3 million, with another good chunk of business coming from Turkey, an Oz nemesis in World War I that is portrayed sympathetically in the new release.
Crowe’s film centers on the battle of Gallipoli, a seminal event in Australia and New Zealand’s emergence on the world stage. More than 11,000 men from those two countries died in brutal trench warfare. The start of the battle, April 25, is still marked as memorial day in the two countries.
When “The Water Diviner” opens in the U.S. April 24, it will be the 100th ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand, which commemorates the service of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. There will be major centenary events in the two nations and elsewhere around the world.
“The Water Diviner” arrives as what Crowe called an “unintentional companion piece” to the 1981 Peter Weir classic, “Gallipoli.” That film, starring a young Mel Gibson, ended with another protagonist “going over the top” of the trenches and captured, in freeze frame, as he is gunned down.
Crowe’s film begins several years after the war, with a father played by Crowe searching for three sons who went missing on the same battlefield.
The film has won mostly positive notices, with a critic at the Daily Telegraph quipping that Crowe’s best achievement as a director was “wrestling with a truculent, famously thin-skinned leading man, and extracting the most soulful performance he’s given in years.”
In recent years, Crowe’s acting career has been hit-and-miss. He had the title role in last year’s “Noah,” which bagged $363 million worldwide, about three times its production budget. His “Winter’s Tale,” also from 2014, made only $31 million worldwide on a budget nearly double that.
The latter was a Warner Bros. release, and the studio has also taken on distribution of “The Water Diviner.” It will initially be shown on 370 screens in about 80 markets, including Imax showings in most locales.
Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., said the film tested particularly well among women. “Hopefully, it gets good word of mouth and has a nice long run,” Fellman said.
Crowe said he had been mulling a turn in the director’s chair for years and called his experience “a much more intimate thing for me than being an actor in somebody else’s production.” He added: “You realize the full extent of a director’s responsibility – whether the colors, whether the textures, whether there is music or silence, every single thing about the film.”
He and his backers, including Brett Ratner’s RatPac, hope audiences are drawn to universal themes like family and loyalty, and are not dissuaded from stepping into theaters because of the the film’s obscure (for now) time and place. The first-time director appeared intent on making his case Thursday, when he introduced the premiere screening at the TCL Chinese Theater, then ventured back outside to continue a round of lengthy interviews with waiting journalists.
In the movie, Crowe’s character, Connor, is on a quest to find his lost sons. A second career directing could provide a bit of symmetry on that theme.
“If I am directing, I’m in control of what I’m doing,” he said. “That means my pre-production is in Australia. My post-production is in Australia. And I’ve got two young sons, so I need to be spending as much of my year as possible with them.”