It’s a rite of passage for Serious Actors of a Certain Age: direct yourself in a story told on an epic scale, with a certain amount of prestige. Kevin Costner did it with Dances with Wolves. Mel Gibson did it with Braveheart. And now, Russell Crowe has done it with his directorial debut, The Water Diviner.
Set during World War I, The Water Diviner tells the story of Joshua Connor (Crowe), an Australian farmer and father of three sons who were lost in a Turkish battlefield. Part of Connor’s particular set of skills is his ability to find the right spot to dig a well in an arid part of Australia (hence the name of the film). After his wife is driven by her grief over the loss of her sons to suicide, Connor vows to travel to Turkey, find his sons’ bodies, and bring them home to be buried alongside their mother.
Once in Constantinople, where he stays at a hotel run by Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), a widowed mother, Connor begins begging the British authorities for access to the battlefields of Gallipoli, where his boys died. Even though he’s denied his request, Connor sneaks into the area, where soldiers are already looking for bodies. He gets unlikely support from Sgt. Cemal (Yilmaz Erdogan), a Turkish officer who may have been responsible for the operation that led to the deaths of Connor’s sons.
Watching this film, the main recurring thought that crossed my mind was that The Water Diviner would be a major Oscar contender…in the 1990s. That’s not exactly a slam against the film; rather, for all the film’s strengths, it feels like the product of a different time. There’s the English-speaking protagonist entering a foreign land on a noble mission, who finds himself drawn into a relationship that’s undeniably sappy. There’s also the absurdity of Connor using his “divining” skills to find the right spot on a battlefield, a trick that’s used a few times. With Connor’s lack of presence during the original fights, it’s hard to take the flashbacks as he’s “divining” seriously.
The primary subject served by The Water Diviner is Russell Crowe, Actor. As a director, Crowe doesn’t quite have as solid of a grasp as he might imagine, but as an actor, Crowe delivers a solid performance. Whether Crowe will take his experiences with this film to develop an identity as a director, or if it’s more of a vanity project, remains to be seen, but while there’s room for improvement, this also could have been far worse.