In 1919, four years after the disastrous Australian defeat at the WWI battle of Gallipoli, a father travels to the Ottoman Empire hoping to find his lost sons. It’s sorta like Saving Private Ryan, except the soldiers to be found are dead, and the stack of needles farmer Connor (Russell Crowe: Noah, Winter’s Tale) has to search for his needles is the battle-scarred landscape upon which are scattered the long-dead bones of the 10,000 Australians — and 70,000 Turks — who were killed there.
How does Connor propose to accomplish such an impossible task? Ah, and herein lies the major fault with The Water Diviner, the title of which offers a clue. See, Connor farms parched, dusty land Down Under, and it seems he survives by dowsing for water: you know, that “trick” by which someone who is allegedly sensitive to the hidden presence of water uses a couple of twigs to point to it. The opening scene of the film has Connor determining a good spot for a new well, and, after some rigorous digging, being vindicated. And hence we are assured that Connor is a veritable water wizard. So are we meant to infer that Connor will use this skill to uncover the bodies of his sons?
We are indeed. And while dowsing for water has no actual scientific basis, this could work as fantasy… except Russell Crowe, making his debut as a feature film director, offers us no hints that anything less than the solidly rational is meant to be afoot here. Even in the realm of fantasy, however, dowsing for water is a far cry from dowsing for dead bodies, and not even a few other hints of the vaguely supernatural — visions Connor has that prove accurate; some “peasant nonsense” about foretelling the future in coffee grounds that turns out not to be nonsense — help alleviate the impression, crafted in concrete cinematic pragmatism, that we should take this all as phlegmatic fact. Which makes the central conceit of The Water Diviner completely ridiculous.
Crowe has previously directed a couple of shorts and a documentary about his band, but nothing with the scope and ambition of The Water Diviner. And where he sticks to historical adventure, he’s on more steady footing. The flashback to the battle that killed his sons is brutal and stark, and the sequence in which Connor himself gets caught in the middle of a fight between the Turks and the invading Greeks is tense and unexpectedly suspenseful; a dust-storm sequence in Australia is amazing and exciting. And there are some intriguing sociological aspects of military forensics and wartime memorializing in Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios’s script that Crowe treats with a smart combination of sensitivity and academic nerdery… like how (the film tells us) the Australian operation to find their dead at Gallipoli and treat them to a proper burial is “the first [time] anyone has given a damn” about rank-and-file casualties.
Other aspects of the film — like Connor’s friendship with an Istanbul hotelier (Olga Kurylenko: Oblivion, Seven Psychopaths) and her young son (Dylan Georgiades) — are pretty standard, though that’s made up for by a nice sense of place, and in a place that hasn’t been seen so often onscreen that it has become cliché. I just wish I could actually believe in the story it wants to tell.