It’s 1919, the end of WWI and an Australian father (Russell Crowe) leaves his outback farm to travel to Gallipoli, Turkey hoping to, at the very least, claim the bodies of his three missing sons from among the thousands of casualties racked up in that tragic bloodbath. Since he’s been gifted with the power to find water, he figures that he’ll be able to find his boys’ bodies in the mud and muck and, once he’s done that, he plans to lay them to rest next to the grave of his wife, a grief-ravaged suicide. Arriving in Turkey, he’s stymied by stuffy, anti-Brit obstructionist Army functionaries but finds sympathy from a Turkish widow (Olga Kurylenko) and her son (Dylan Georgiades) and a friendly commander (Yilmaz Erdogan) who assists Brits and Australians in locating the graves of their dead.
The Water Diviner, scripted by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, is the first film directed by Russell Crowe and, even in the long shadow of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, it’s clear that Crowe has his heart in the right place and his ambitions set high. He’s after something passionate, anti-war, epic, yet intimate. Crowe is on pretty solid ground when the film, glowingly shot by Andrew Lesnie (the Lord of the Rings films), focuses on flashbacks of his character reading The Arabian Knights to his sons — the book inspires his sons to go off to war — but things wobble in scenes meant to portray a shared mutual sense of loss and a bit of romance with the gorgeous Kurylenko, owner of the Istanbul hotel at which Crowe stays.
Where the script and movie go seriously wonky, though, is whenever things descend into cheap, treacly, unearned sentimentality. Which is often. More fatally, the film makes a breakneck detour into post-war Turkey’s philosophies, politics and displacement, becoming a rip-roaring adventure complete with speeding trains, gunfights, and even a bit of pro-war chest-thumping at odds with what’s come before. Crowe, who’s been having a rough time finding his footing again for a decade now, underplays his role so self-consciously that when he wants us to feel his pain, all we feel is his ego. He fails to move us. And so does The Water Diviner. ** ½