Who would have expected that Russell Crowe was such a softie? For his first directorial effort, the Australian actor has chosen a sentimental period tale about a farmer from down under who travels to Turkey in 1919 to search for the three sons presumed killed in the battle of Gallipoli four years earlier, using his skill as a water diviner to locate their remains. Crowe also plays the fellow as a dewy-eyed bloke who bonds easily with a cheeky little Turkish boy and more gradually with the tyke’s gorgeous mother while in Istanbul, and only a bit more haltingly with a Turkish officer assisting the British in locating the remains of the dead on the battlefield.
The script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios seems inspired to some extent by “Saving Private Ryan.” Crowe plays Joshua Connor, a part-time dowser who raised three rambunctious sons with his wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie): Arthur (played as a youth by Jack Patterson and later by Ryan Corr); Henry (Ben Norris, and later Ben O’Toole); and Edward (Aidan Smith, then James Fraser). In a series of flashbacks, we see him, among other things, reading stories from the “Arabian Nights” to the boys, and in one instance recuing them when they’re caught in a terrible dust storm.
But he also encouraged their service to King and Country, and when World War I broke out, supported their enlistment. They were among the hundreds of thousands of Aussies and New Zealanders who took part in the disastrous campaign of 1915, when the Allies futilely attempted to establish a beachhead on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula between April, 1915 and January, 1916 and often perished in the effort. (Periodic flashbacks show them in the thick of machine-gun fire and hand-to-hand combat.) All three of the Connor boys were presumed dead, and Eliza never forgave Joshua for encouraging them to serve. Eventually she committed suicide.
After persuading the local priest to bury her, reluctantly, in hallowed ground, Connor proceeds to Turkey to search for his boys’ remains. He’s almost immediately won over by young Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), who seizes his bag and leads him on a chase to the hotel run by his mother Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and uncle Omer (Steve Bastoni). Omer wants to stand in for his brother—presumed dead in battle—in more ways than one, but Ayshe, more cosmopolitan in her outlook, refuses to accept that her husband is dead and insists on remaining unmarried. Connor is quickly enchanted by Orhan, and though it takes Ayshe longer to warm to him—she blames Australians for her husband’s disappearance—he eventually wins her over as well. Omer, to say the least, is not pleased.
Connor, officially blocked by the British occupiers from going to Gallipoli, gets there surreptitiously and is unofficially aided by Hughes (Jai Courtney), the Brit charged with overseeing the recovery of bodies, as well as Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), who led the Turkish defenses at Gallipoli, and his Sergeant, Jemal (Cem Yilmaz). When Connor’s uncanny skill leads to the discovery of the remains of Henry and Edward, it encourages Hasan to investigate the fate of Arthur, and it turns out that he might have survived and been taken prisoner. That leads Connor on a mission to find him, in which the British authorities are again unhelpful but Hasan, who’s planning to join Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist campaign against Greek invaders, proves once more an unlikely ally.
To this point, “The Water Diviner” has been schmaltzy but generally agreeable in a determinedly old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, in the last act it moves into fantasy territory (featuring whirling dervishes, of all things) as Connor joins Hasan on a journey to the front lines in the hope that he’ll find out what happened to Arthur. This portion of the film strains to tie up the story threads in a way that audiences will find agreeably uplifting. Even here, however, it has the considerable benefit of portraying the Turks not in the usual fashion of brutal thugs, but in a positive light. (The Brits and Greeks, on the other hand, come off rather poorly, with a couple of exceptions like Courtney’s Hughes.) In Ergodan’s hands Hasan is a figure of dignity, principle and purpose, and though Bastoni’s Omer proves a boor beneath his surface polish, even Yilmaz’s bumptious sergeant emerges as heroic. It goes without saying, moreover, that Kurylenko is lovely and little Georgiades positively irresistible.
But of course the story centers on Connor, and Crowe brings a sense of real strength and determination to the character without missing the man’s underlying grief, vulnerability and provincial goodness. His direction is skillful as well, even if he’s unable to make some of the screenplay’s less subtle decisions—the sprinkling of flashbacks to the boys on the battlefield, the intercuts of the dervishes, the “Arabian Nights” motif—work very well. Nor can he do much with the picture’s last fifteen minutes, which after all do crown what’s actually a very somber tale with a degree of light and happiness that comes across as a manipulative reach. Even there, however, Christopher Kennedy’s sharp production design, Tess Schofield’s costumes and Andrew Lesnie’s luscious cinematography remain highly impressive.
In all, despite some stumbles—or dry holes, if you prefer—“The Water Diviner” succeeds as a traditionally-framed drama of a father’s search for his family, and a film that should hold special resonance of Australians and New Zealanders on the centenary of the battle of Gallipoli in which so many of their countrymen died.