MOVIE REVIEW: The Water Diviner



Nearly five years ago on this website, in the full review of Ben Affleck's "The Town," the trend of prominent actors and actresses that have turned to directing was discussed.  In terms of prominence and Oscar pedigree, that 2010 anecdote contained a track record that began with lucky early successes, including first-timer Kevin Costner with "Dances With Wolves" and Mel Gibson's second try with "Braveheart" that have since, prophetically, been joined by Affleck and "Argo" two years later as Oscar winners.  Some actors (Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster) have dabbled with directing, but haven't stuck with it regularly.  Outside of those lucky anomalies, most actor-directors (Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard) took some time before winning the big one, while other veterans (Woody Allen, George Clooney) are still waiting for their name to be called for the right film.

Fast-forward to 2015 and "The Water Diviner" arrives as the directorial debut of Oscar-winning Australian actor Russell Crowe.  Released last year in his home country, Crowe's film was the highest grossing film in Australia for 2014 and netted three Australian Academy Awards last year including Best Film.  "The Water Diviner" hits U.S. theaters on April 24 as a little fish in much bigger pond, a week before all competition will be squashed by "Avengers: Age of Ultron."   In an industry where everyone is constantly being compared and measured against their peers, most will to prognosticate Crowe already.  Does he have it in him to be the next Robert De Niro behind the director's chair, the next Kevin Costner, or the next Clint Eastwood?  Let's vote for "none of the above" and give him some time.  Fashioned better than most directorial debuts, "The Water Diviner" isn't perfect, but it's a solid start from Russell Crowe climbing into a new chair.

"The Water Diviner" chronicles a slice of 20th century Australian history with a film inspired by true events.  Before the U.S. became involved years after the start, Australia was a prominent participant on behalf of the British Empire in World War I.  As an emerging nation thrust onto the world stage, many Australian men volunteered and flocked to the chance to represent their country and play a part in history.  The bulk of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (ANZAC) war effort was spent battling for the control of the Suez Canal in Egypt and the Dardanelles passage against the Ottoman Empire in Turkey on the Western Front.  Of the over 330,000 Australians that served overseas, over 60,000 of them never came home and one-third of them were wounded.

Three of those men that never came home were Arthur, Edward, and Henry Connor, the only sons and children of Joshua Connor (Crowe, in his own lead role) and his wife Eliza (Australian actress Jacqueline McKenzie).  In 1919, it has been five years since they joined the losing effort of the ANZACs at the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey, the same pinnacle war campaign featured in Peter Weir's excellent and seminal 1981 film "Gallipoli" that introduced the Western world to Mel Gibson.  For more historical significance and detail, check out Discovery Channel's "Battlefield Detectives" documentary or The History Channel's "The Untold Stories of World War I" selection (you know, back when both cable channels had educational programming and not just shameless reality television).  

In any case, all three of them are presumed dead.  The stalwart Joshua carries on as a farmer and water diviner, a man that finds and digs live-giving wells in the unforgiving semi-arid outback grasslands.  Eliza has never coped with the grief and takes her own life.  Now alone, Joshua seeks to fulfill his wife's dying wish that her boys come home.

Dauntless and determined to find and bring the bodies of his sons home to Australia to be buried next to their mother, Joshua embarks on the long trip to Turkey.  He is met by a foreign country and culture that he doesn't understand and one that resents where he is from as a war enemy.  He seeks lodging at a small inn run by a local widow named Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko of "Oblivion" and "Quantum of Solace") who lost her own husband at Gallipoli.  The British Consul informs Joshua that the war-torn and mine-laden Gallipoli peninsula is unsafe and forbidden from travel.  In these years later after World War I, the remaining ANZAC forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes (fellow Aussie Jai Courtney), are on burial detail for the nearly 9,000 Australian soldiers that were killed there. 

Joshua bribes a local fisherman to sail him to Gallipoli and his search begins at the behest of the military personnel present.  Australia may have lost almost 9,000 men in Gallipoli, but Turkey lost nearly 70,000.  The host country too carries a deep sense of memorial.  In "The Water Diviner," that is embodied by the former Ottoman Gallipoli commander Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) and his right-hand man Sergeant Jemal (Cem Yilmaz).  Where his own Australian soldiers dismiss Joshua as some too-little-too-late grieving father, Hasan and Jemal see an honor in him and his quest.  To them, he's the one father that actually came back to Gallipoli.  In shared sympathy, Hasan begins to aid Joshua in his quest, even amid the invading Greeks that may bring a new war to Hasan and Jemel.

Even though his face dominates the poster and he leads in front of the camera as well as behind, Russell Crowe does a very good job of giving his ensemble performers chances to shine.  In a focused small role, this is the most invested we've seen the normally wooden Jai Courtney from "A Good Day to Die Hard" and "Jack Reacher."  He'll probably screw up being Kyle Reese in "Terminator: Genisys" this summer, but let's celebrate while we can.  Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko is probably too pretty to play this burgeoning love interest role, but she maintains a dignity matching of the material and leaves the seductive modeling rightfully at home.  By far, the best performances in the film belong to enigmatic Turkish pair of Yilmaz Erdogan and Cem Yilmaz.  Both men have stand-up comedian backgrounds, but you would never know it seeing these powerful roles of stoic patriots and war veterans.  Erdogan won the Australian Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and deserves legitimate contention here with our own Oscars.

Both inside and outside of the film's history, the immense amount of loss at Gallipoli has forever linked the countries of Australia and Turkey.  That fateful and tragic shared history is the interwoven cloth by which "The Water Diviner" is created.  The film is gorgeously shot in both countries by veteran Peter Jackson cinematographer Andrew Lesnie.  Matching Joshua and Hasan's character arcs in the film, what started out as tenuous between the two countries has blossomed into a deep mutual respect in the century since World War I.  As fate would have it, matching the release of "The Water Diviner," the date of April 25 each year is known as "ANZAC Day" in both countries and is each nation's most significant day of remembering military casualties and veterans.  

That great respect is very well represented by "The Water Diviner" and is one of the film's strongest traits.  Crowe's film isn't gaudy war glorification towards a happy ending.  This film is the acknowledgement of shared experience and shared loss between strangers that is tremendously noble, even with the sometimes over-dramatized story.  It may stumble and fall for the trap of action-for-action's-sake in the third act to generate a louder climax, but the journey along the way is a solid and poignant one.  This is a very encouraging directorial debut from Russell Crowe.  Maybe he's got a little Clooney and Eastwood in him to keep this growth as an artist going into the future.  If anything, this is a love letter to Crowe's "Master and Commander" director and fellow countryman Peter Weir for "Gallipoli" and for doing what he's done for Australia for worldwide movie-making.

LESSON #1: THE DEPTH OF RESPECT WHEN IT COMES TO THE LAST RIGHTS OF SOLDIERS-- Every country and culture brings out an extra level of honor, dignity, and tradition when it comes to paying respects to those who gave their lives for their country.  It says a great deal about both Turkey and Australia that, even after bitterly fighting tooth-and-nail against each other in Gallipoli, they would work side-by-side to give proper burial rights to their fallen soldiers years later.  On a smaller level as well in "The Water Diviner," we are watching a father who wants his children buried next to their mother in consecrated ground with a resolve that very few end up questioning or disrespecting.  Need an American equivalent?  Watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery or the funeral epilogue of "American Sniper."  What you're seeing is more than pageantry.  It's respect for the greatest of sacrifices.

LESSON #2: COUNTRIES FOREVER LINKED BY HONOR AND COMBAT-- Too often, war is treated as a list of winners, losers, statistics, and redrawn borders on a map or globe.  People forget that both sides had their own losses.  Even with stark differences, battlefields are shared cemeteries and memorials for two sides that either are still enemies or used to be.  No one gets more "dibs" than another.  As aforementioned, Turkey and Australia understand that even to this day and we see the seeds of that in "The Water Diviner."  It takes time and sometimes it doesn't always work out, but war-time enemies will always share history and have their honor entwined.

LESSON #3: EMPATHY TOWARDS OTHER CULTURES-- Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 are your big picture ideals from "The Water Diviner."  Lesson #3 is at the man-to-man and personal level of the union of two countries.  Through each relationship Joshua takes on, between Ayshe and her son or with Hasan and Jemal, he develops an empathy towards the different culture they represent.  It's a Christian finding common ground with a Muslim and vice versa.  That continues full circle when Ayshe and Hasan too can look past Joshua as a foreigner and see a dignified, benevolent, and courageous father and man.  Letting go of stereotypes, bigotry, and hate to embrace empathy and understanding of others different from you is incredibly important in this modern world where cultural clashes are happening around the globe that are fed by a lack of empathy.