An often capriciously mixed cocktail of war film and cross-cultural family melodrama, “The Water Diviner” marks an ambitious if emotionally manipulative directing debut for Russell Crowe. Playing the titular Australian farmer who journeys to Turkey four years after the WWI battles at Gallipoli in search of his three missing soldier sons, he has crafted the film to play to his strengths of stoicism, determination and aw-shucks mateship at the expense of deeper truths about war and tolerance. Star and subject matter should combine for frothy grosses when the film is released domestically Dec. 26, though the glass might be less full Stateside for Warner Bros., which has announced an April 24 rollout.
This is a natural companion piece to Peter Weir’s revered 1981 drama, “Gallipoli,” which followed the fates of two young sprinters (including a young Mel Gibson) who find themselves in the thick of the failed offensive that has come to define the Australian “Digger” (read: soldier) ideals of pluck, courage and dignity in the heat of war. The event prompted the April 25 establishment of Anzac Day, which commemorates the sacrifices of Australian and New Zealand troops who fought and died for their countries.
An opening card reads “inspired by true events,” and the film has an intriguing genesis: While researching an entirely separate project on Australia’s history, Melbourne-based scribe Andrew Anastasios found a letter from one Cyril Hughes, a high-ranking officer charged with recovering and interring the Diggers from the abandoned battlefield via the Imperial War Graves Unit. One line caught Anastasios’ eye and imagination: “One old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son’s grave.”
That “old chap” has become Crowe’s Joshua Connor, a farmer who spends his postwar days remembering adventures, including a dangerous dust storm, with his now-lost sons Arthur (Jack Patterson, later Ryan Corr), Henry (Ben Norris/Ben O’Toole) and Edward (Aidan Smith/James Fraser). When his grief-stricken wife, Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie, united with Crowe 22 years after they appeared together in “Romper Stomper”), succumbs to her despair in a brief scene reminiscent of a similar tragedy in Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” Connor decides it’s time to bring his boys home.
His three-month offscreen journey to Constantinople begins roughly, as he is rebuffed by hard-line British officer Brindley (Dan Wyllie) in his request to visit the battlefield. Then, grinning urchin Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) boosts his bag and leads Connor on a merry chase through the market stalls before guiding him to the hotel run by his mother, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), and conservative uncle Omer (Steve Bastoni).
At first awkward and apprehensive, he develops tentative bonds with mother and boy, the latter promising him a fisherman to ferry him to the Gallipoli beachhead. Cut to Crowe wading ashore there, to the astonishment of Hughes (Jai Courtney), who is coordinating the recovery effort, fraught with no little tension, with Turkish war vets Major Hasan and Sgt. Jemal (Yilmaz Erdogan and Cem Yilmaz, whose wildly successful 2001 Turkish dramedy “Viziontele” toured the fest circuit). “Are they all this stubborn?” one asks, to which Hughes replies, “He’s the only father who came looking.”
The second star-powered, Oz-shot drama to premiere Down Under in as many weeks, following Angelina Jolie’s recently unveiled “Unbroken,” “The Water Diviner” can’t help but feel diminished in comparison. The script, by Andrew Knight and Anastasios, relies heavily on coincidence and convenience to move Connor from Australia to Turkey and establish local allies, giving the narrative a perfunctory feel.
The use of “The Arabian Nights” as a leitmotif never gains traction; nor does the conceit that Connor can use his water-divining powers to locate his boys. The decision to sprinkle shock cuts to pitched wartime battles, complete with a denture-rattling sound mix, disrupts the film’s flow and focus, suggesting a first-time director anxious to underscore established points about grief and the horror of the unknown.
Erdogan, Yilmaz and Courtney are fine in support of Crowe’s dependable, and some would say predictable persona, while Kurylenko does what she can with a role that seemingly exists to provide a measure of hope to Connor moving forward. Corr, O’Toole and Fraser share a battlefield scene vivid in its evocation of war’s ghastly sounds.
Crowe has wisely surrounded himself with top-tier tech talent, from the expectedly burnished lensing of “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” lenser Andrew Lesnie (filming in Australia and, briefly, Turkey) to costume designer Tess Schofield, here fresh off the success of “The Sapphires.”
The film’s final credit will be cryptic to those not familiar with Australia’s National Rugby League: After eight years of ownership, sport tragic Crowe and his partners have navigated their team to the most recent championship, which explains “South Sydney Rabbitohs 21st premiership you beauties.”