Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe) is a dowser, a man who can find water in the Australian desert—a talent he will later employ when he goes searching for the bodies of his three sons, all lost on the same day in the disastrous World War I battle of Gallipoli. This supernatural touch isn’t really necessary to the film’s plot, and it’s a curious choice for Crowe (this is his directing debut). Part of Crowe’s immense credibility as an actor is how grounded he is—woo-woo stuff is really not for him. But the mystical hint is a sign of the film’s reach for significance, and of Crowe’s desire to say a few things while telling a very sincere story.
The Water Diviner follows Connor to Turkey, newly stripped of its status as the Ottoman Empire and now (in 1919, that is) overrun by British troops searching the Gallipoli battlefield. The movie hints at the strangeness of the impulse to find and memorialize the dead (Connor’s whole purpose in traveling halfway across the world is to bring his sons’ bodies back to Australia). Yet eventually it forgoes this subject—and Crowe’s convincing depiction of grief—to settle instead on melodrama. Connor strikes up a friendship with hotelkeeper Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her impish son, escapes from a train ambush on horseback, and runs afoul of political unrest. Crowe is careful to trace the way Connor evolves from a Turk-hating outsider to a man who appreciates the wisdom and dignity of a local military chief (Yilmaz Erdogan). Yet this is the kind of movie that espouses universal brotherhood while settling for easy jokes about the Easterners and their exotic ways.
As a director, Crowe is earnest and old-fashioned, and there are movie-watching pleasures to be had here. Lord of the Rings cinematographer Andrew Leslie knows how to look at big open spaces so you sense the bones beneath the surface. The film gets bogged down in its many flashbacks and sidebar dramas (of course Ayshe, whose husband died in the war, is menaced by the husband’s brutish brother), and finally uncorks one too many unlikely coincidences. Crowe has lavished a great deal of effort on this project, the subject of which is widely memorialized in Australia and New Zealand (the sacrifice of thousands of soldiers was vividly told in Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli). The Water Diviner feels almost too careful in its desire to hit all the right notes and do justice to all sides. Which makes it more of a war memorial than a living, breathing movie.
THE WATER DIVINER Opens Fri., April 24 at Sundance, Thornton Place, Pacific Place, and Lincoln Square. Rated R. 111 minutes.