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It may have taken 14 movies before Kurosawa made his adventure epic masterpiece in Seven Samurai and 13 movies before David Lean made Lawrence of Arabia, but Russell Crowe doesn’t have that kind of time. At age 51 and already having an extraordinary career as an actor that includes three Oscar nominations and one win, he’s stepped behind the camera for the first time. A long-gestating pet project, The Water Diviner returns Crowe back home to Australia to tell a story he says in interviews has deeply personal significance to him. It’s easy to see why. Politically, socially, and sexually savvy, this work of historical fiction with a supposedly accurate 20th century setting finds relevance in modern politics (supposedly because it has recently fallen under criticism for obscuring facts for dramatic effect) by studying the collapse of The Ottoman Empire through familial tragedy.
Rather than Lean or Kurosawa, Crowe finds his closest directorial companion in Edward Zwick by way of Legends of the Fall, a similar outback-turned-global war epic that has a foot dipping in the pool of grand romance. Crowe made his debut schmaltzy and sentimental, bravely balking trends to be grim or sourfaced, a gamble that might leave some with a noxious cringe. To call this type of open-faced emotion unfashionable might be to undersell it—it’s nearly absent on the big screen. The emotional wheelhouse of The Water Diviner best suits fans of Downton Abbey, and while a big-screen epic being compared to a small-screen soap opera seems a grave undercutting insult, do remember Abbey is very good. It’s about niche, it’s about audience, and finding a big one is something this earnest film just won’t do.
Two families serve as the narrative counterweights to the shared tragedies at the Battle of Gallipoli. World War I has ended, they both suffered loss, and it’s through their loneliness and sadness they seem to find each other. It’s textbook romance, starting with an early scene where Russell Crowe’s Joshua Connor, husband, father, and water diviner, races towards an apocalyptic-scale sandstorm on horseback. Here he embodies the archetypical romantic hero, the type of figure brandishing the cover of the romance novels perched on my dear mother’s bookshelf. Connor has lost his three boys to the battle, which is shown to us in splintered war flashbacks. Crowe directed them dirty and unflattering. Shots of blinding beautiful skies and radiant pure blue oceans are starkly contrasted with the flashbacks; Crowe nails how to collide inharmonious images for an effect.
Connor goes on a mission to find his three sons to bring them home with the hope of burying them with his family. And so he must first travel to Constantinople to next get to Gallipoli which he’s told is cut off and illegal for civilians. The clash of cultures is meant to be alluring, and Crowe seems well intentioned and maybe even a little courageous to tell a story so enveloped in a culture alien to much of the West. The multicultural themes are laid on thick without having much clarity, and the obvious liberal criticisms against white intervention are voiced. The subtext might have the complexity of a first-year political science major, but using a late-film relationship as a metaphor for the war is a clever use of it through drama.
Beyond the underdeveloped themes, The Water Diviner cooks up constant narrative roadblocks to keep things rolling. A military man played by Jai Courtney, his best role so far as he shows a soft side and subtlety his henchmen roles always have lacked, refuses to help “just another father who has lost his sons.” Yilmaz Erdogan plays a Turkish officer assisting Courtney’s colonel with cleaning up the battleground and identifying the dead, and how alliances are made, broken, reforged, and broken yet again has all the high dramatics of a daytime episodic soap. Along those lines is the model-esque Muslim widow played by Olga Kurylenko, played as angry and written as unfortunately inexplicable.
It’s hokey, and the second half amps up the potential for eye-rolling considerably. An unbelievable romance predictably emerges with a near chauvinistic bent, and a late-film bromance is equally unearned. Maybe the sin lies in the edit, but the script, adapted by a book of the same name, structure embodies what I call Side Street Cinema. It’s as though the narrative has taken neither the slow-but-scenic route of arthouse cinema or the fast-paced highway of the action thriller. Instead it's turned onto the side streets of plot tedium, constantly stopping and starting with little regard for getting anywhere but the next stop sign before starting up again. The Water Diviner is episodic storytelling without the periodical cliffhangers and crushed by characters that are only just above being called a cartoon.
In a radical creative move, it’s almost as though Connor himself had experienced the famously deadly battle. A career as a water diviner has given him a cheesy sort of type of second sight, of prognostication, where he senses past events as well as sensing the dead. It doesn’t really play, and while Crowe gives a suitable performance (he’s too talented an actor not to), he plays these scenes with a super serious face that’s hard to take seriously. I guess it’s hard to direct yourself having war flashbacks you didn’t experience firsthand.
But the story has sweep and Crowe manages to muster up a believable scope. There’s gloriously staged wide shots of oceans and cites, and, at times, you feel a sincere sense of adventure. It’s harder than it looks, and watching the film I recalled Crowe’s dialogue as Jor-El in Man of Steel: “You will stumble. You will fall.” For every touch of artistry—like a match cut of a sandstorm transforming into the flowing drapes of a Muslim prayer robe—there are nine that are rudimentary. His choices can be downright boring, and with a story this soap opera, some visual wit could liven it up. It works more often than it doesn’t, though, and a debut this ambitious ought to be commended. Often I was moved even without forgetting the vividly obvious manipulations the script, the editing, the direction, and even the performances that were wholly responsible for twisting my emotions into a knot. There’s a clumsiness to it, but Crowe’s no poser.
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