Russell Crowe has been quoted as saying, “In wars, no one wins; everyone loses. There are no heroes, only dead people. Movies can really change things and ... it becomes an educational process. I think that’s the healthiest way of attacking anything.”
The proof comes in his feature directing debut, “The Water Diviner.” It shows he can still deliver a subtle, potent performance in front of the camera and move the narrative along compellingly behind it.
Before the script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios yields to a Hollywood-style ending that doesn’t fit, it makes poignant points about the futility of combat (especially World War I, the most meaningless war of the last century).
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Crowe plays the title character, an Australian farmer named Connor who can find buried water by walking with two sticks until some element – maybe ESP, maybe an electromagnetic field – makes them cross.
He’s happy on his remote ranch, but his wife has become unhinged. Three sons sent to the battle of Gallipoli in 1915 never came home; after four years, she polishes their boots and makes him read stories to their empty beds. He sets off to recover their bodies, but British authorities impede him. Only an uneasy alliance with two former enemies, a dignified Turkish major (Yilmaz Erdogan) and his scruffy sergeant (Cem Yilmaz), offers hope.
The writers must have felt uncomfortable with a male-dominated cast, because they work in a stale subplot about a Turkish war widow (Olga Kurylenko) who runs the hotel where Connor stays in Istanbul. She has a 10-year-old boy (Dylan Georgiades) who speaks perfect English and attaches himself to the grief-stricken Connor – you see where this is going – especially when the widow’s brother-in-law tries to claim her as a second wife.
Yet the heart of the story remains the awkward and suspicious friendships between men whose nations were killing each other a few years before. The Turks, seen here as proud people who fought against English-speaking invaders, get depicted sympathetically but not romanticized. In 1919, they’re dealing with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after more than 600 years, life under occupation forces and attacks from the Greeks in Anatolia.
Erdogan and Yilmaz make English-language debuts with quiet flair. The Ukrainian-born Kurylenko doesn’t seem as authentic, of course, but she has dignity. Crowe remains a massive force onscreen in his early 50s; there’s nothing light or relaxed about him, but his gravity suits the part.
As a director, he likes to cut to mysterious flashbacks that become fully clear only when you know the whole tale. He benefits from haunting cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, who won an Oscar for “The Lord of the Rings.” (Crowe turned that project down to make “A Beautiful Mind.”) After shooting seven Peter Jackson epics in 14 years, “Water Diviner” must have seemed like a rest cure for Lesnie.
‘The Water Diviner’
An Australian father goes to Turkey after World War I to find three sons who never came back from the battle of Gallipoli.
B STARS: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz.
DIRECTOR: Russell Crowe.
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes.
RATING: R (war violence, including some disturbing images).