The Water Diviner

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 24, 2015

A scene fro 'The Water Diviner'
A scene fro 'The Water Diviner'  (Source:Mister Smith Entertainment)

Russell Crowe's directorial debut "The Water Diviner" premieres in America in time of the 100th anniversary of the commencement of the Gallipoli Campaign, a World War I campaign that cost the Allies a lot of blood.

This isn't the first Australian flick to focus on the Gallipoli Campaign; Peter Weir tackles the subject in his 1981 movie "Gallipoli" (it was an early role for Mel Gibson), and this year also sees an Australian television miniseries about the campaign.

Crowe's movie would need to be something special to stand out from the pack, and evidently the film is seen, by some, as meeting that criteria -- released in Australia at the end of last year, "The Water Diviner" was nominated in nine categories for the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards, and won in five, including Best Film.

American audiences might not be so receptive. Not because of the subject matter -- Weir's film is respected here -- but because "The Water Diviner" is a mess, veering from theme to theme and genre to genre. The thumbnail plot description is simple enough; an Australian farmer named Connor (Crowe), whose three barely-adult sons all enlisted, fought, and died at Gallipoli, sets out, four years after they perished, to bring home and bury their bones.

Connor scratches out a living in the Australian desert (a desolate place subjected to ravaging sandstorms and years-long spells of drought) thanks to his ability to "divine" the location of sub-surface water. It's a talent that may or may not be genuine, but it's prompted plenty of superstition over the centuries, being condemned in some religious circles and more or less written off by science.

In the realm of dramatic cinema, it's the kind of thing that could easily be overplayed, and the fact that the movie downplays Connor's abilities is one of the things Crowe gets right -- especially considering that water divination isn't the farmer's only talent. He also seems to possess the abilities of a clairvoyant, able to see events from another person's past by touching a possession or even being in the same location as that person. (This happens when his son's diary is finally delivered, after a long delay.) This talent proves useful as Connor travels to Istanbul, then to Gallipoli, despite British bureaucratic indifference and official resistance to his efforts.

Along the way, Connor -- who is, at this point, newly widowered -- encounters a beautiful, stubborn woman named Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko). Ayshe runs a European-style hotel; times are tough, but even so, when her scamp of a son, Orhan (Dylan Georgidas) brings Connor home, she's reluctant to rent him a room. As it happens, Ayshe, too, lost someone at Gallipoli -- her husband; now, her brother-in-law, Omer (Steve Bastoni), is pressuring her to become his second wife and berating her for allowing Orhan to think that his father is still alive.

It's a match made in romance heaven, with shades of screwball comedy thrown in. But Connor's single-minded drive to see to his dead sons pulls the movie back from such flirtations, only to propel the story into action-adventure territory. Cue the spies, underground resistance cells, inexplicable bonds of sudden trust, and super-hero antics, all leading to a twist that doesn't surprise as much as it exasperates.

Visually, the film is a mixed bag; it's mostly gorgeous, but a tendency to treat Istanbul like some sort of exotic fantasy world leads to the dubious use of a yellow filter. This causes certain colors -- blues, reds, oranges -- to pop, but it also makes other colors -- mauves, violets, and especially greens -- to look ugly and out of place. In any event, it's distracting, and a movie as hobbled by tonal shifts and narrative lapses as this one hardly needs the further challenge of cinematography, even by a gifted DP like Andrew Lesnie, that calls such attention to itself. (Another eyeball-grabber is Jai Courtney, who plays a sympathetic British officer; he easily steals all the movie's heat and juice, even when playing opposite Crowe.)

Movies that are mixed bags are fine and well; most films qualify, to some extent, and you can always find something to enjoy about them. But when a mixed-bag movie is also this mixed up, you either throw up your hands, turn off your brain, and hope for the best, or seek solace in your soda and popcorn. Bring a few extra bucks for snacks: You're gonna need them.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.