Antipodean cinema’s biggest star, Russell Crowe, makes his feature directorial debut in ambitious style with an epic that, though wrought from an original screenplay from Andrews Anastasios and Knight, bears the hallmarks of a filmic adaptation of some much loved ‘Great Australian Novel’. It’s not the movie you might expect from a first time actor turned megaphone wielder, though Crowe may have been chiefly attracted to a scene in which his character saves the day by clobbering a villain with a cricket bat; an iconic image of Aussie heroism if ever there was one.
It’s 1919, and Crowe is Joshua, a farmer on a patch of outback land bearing the postal address ‘middle of nowhere’. He possesses the valuable titular gift of being able to find water through a combination of psychic powers and divining rods, detailed in an opening scene that owes much to the beginning sequence of There Will be Blood. Though he’s eked out an existence in this formidable wilderness, he and his wife are far from living the good life, thanks to the presumed death of their three boys at the notorious battle of Gallipoli (think Pearl Harbour or Dunkirk for Aussies and Kiwis) in Turkey. When his wife takes her own life - curiously in the exact same manner as Ruth Wilson’s distraught Aussie housewife in Saving Mr. Banks - Joshua decides to make for the Turkish battlefield in order to find the bodies of his sons and bury them in the family plot.
Crowe’s film is very much an old school Sunday afternoon epic. It never quite nails its flag to any political mast, detailing the horrors of war without ever critiquing its motivations. We get epic, and at times blood-soaked and gruesome, battle scenes, as well as an old-fashioned quivering lips romance between Joshua and Olga Kurylenko’s Ayshe, the widowed proprietor of the Turkish bed and breakfast he makes the base of his conquest. The movie is most effective when portraying the former, with Crowe displaying a knack for conveying scale, and the film has an impressive sub-Spielberg grandeur in its moments of action. It’s the romantic angle that Crowe fudges, with too many cheesy moments of slo-mo and lingering glances employed to sell the burgeoning relationship between two shattered souls. We never quite buy into their entanglement, mainly because the cultural gulf between the two isn’t remotely explored beyond gags about eating habits, and it all comes off a bit Lasse Hallstrom. The actress tries her best, but it’s difficult to accept Kurylenko as a Turk. The movie was shot in Turkey, so there’s no excuse for not giving the part to a local - Winter Sleep’s Melisa Sozen would have been ideal!
The oddest aspect of Crowe’s debut is Joshua’s ability to locate water, which also translates into a supernatural skill in finding needle-like corpses in the haystack fields of Gallipoli. The use of flashback confuses the issue, leaving us scratching our heads as to whether we are sharing Joshua’s psychic visions or it’s simply a matter of clumsy editing.
If you can ignore the film’s undeveloped mystical subplot and its misjudged romance, The Water Diviner makes for a perfectly fine watch for those who pine for the lost days of the Sunday afternoon epic.