Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner is a notably ambitious historical drama that showcases Crowe’s talents behind and in front of the camera. The Oscar-winning Australian actor directs and stars in the film about a pained father who journeys to retrieve the bodies of his three sons who reportedly died together in the Battle of Gallipoli.
Much of the story takes place four years after the World War I battle— in 1919— as Joshua Connor (Crowe) is still suffering from the loss. His wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) is unforgiving and blames her husband for letting the three sons enlist. After Connor finds water deep beneath the Earth’s surface (he has a knack for discovering water underground, hence the film’s title), his wife admonishes, “You can find water but you can’t even find your own children?”
Shortly thereafter, Eliza takes her own life leaving Connor with nothing to go home to. He decides then to fulfill his late wife’s request and retrieve the bodies of his three sons so they can be properly buried in Australia. The trip leads Connor to a hotel in Istanbul, where he befriends the kindly manager Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her mischievous son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades).
The film went on to win three Australian Academy Awards and it’s easy to see why. The script, written by Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight, packs an emotional punch and its focus on the casualties of war will be hard to forget. In both flashbacks depicting a dangerous sandstorm that Connor’s sons were caught in, and in scenes depicting the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Gallipoli itself, Crowe brings an emotional rawness to the story.
During one grueling death scene in particular, Crowe shows that the only sound that may be worse than a soldier crying for help is the sound of silence that follows.
The romance depicted here—which feels misplaced in a movie about a man so overwhelmed with grief—is one of the film’s weakest elements. As Connor faces a bureaucratic nightmare journeying to the Gallipoli battleground, he spends more and more time with Ayshe, who— despite initial misgivings—slowly grows fonder of him.
While Connor’s growing relationship with Ayshe’s son works in establishing a father-son type bond, his relationship with Ayshe only distracts the film from doing what it does best.
The film might’ve done better if it focused more on the supporting characters of Lieutenant Colonel Hughes (Jai Courtney) and Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), whose complex dynamic sets up an interesting subplot in the story. Hughes is an Allied soldier charged with properly burying and memorializing those who were lost in the Gallipoli battle while Hasan is a Turkish officer supporting that mission.
Hasan, of course, is surrounded by enemy forces during this process because his army fought against the Allies in the battle. At first, the relationship between Hughes and Hasan and the one between Hasan and Connor are fraught with resentment but slowly, that hatred falters in the wake of a growing level of respect between the men.
The Water Diviner is clearly an imperfect film and its uneven tone (many of the attempts at comedy fail miserably) and the romance between Connor and Ayshe are two of its shortfalls. But what Crowe manages to do here is bring respectful attention to those who were lost during that war (he dedicates the film to the lost souls of that war) who never got the respect and honor they truly deserved. For that, we should be grateful.
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