Russell Crowe’s directorial debut The Water Diviner has lofty ambitions – but only partly hits the mark, says MacDara Conroy

Russell Crowe’s directorial debut The Water Diviner has lofty ambitions, tackling as it does the events of the First World War’s ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. Occupying a vaguely equivalent place in the Australian consciousness that the Somme holds to the British, Gallipoli is now a byword for the futility of conflict, with a profound resonance down under. The slaughter of the ANZACs (and others, including some Irish) on that Ottoman peninsula inflicted a deep and tender wound on the Aussie psyche; the prevalent blokey culture still bristles uncomfortably against the difficult emotions of pain, and grief. Crowe certainly isn’t the first antipodean filmmaker to go there – Peter Weir made what was previously the definitive take on the tragedy in his 1981 eponymous effort, starring Mel Gibson in arguably his breakout role – but with the centenary of the campaign falling this year, the Kiwi-born resident Aussie scores extra points for timeliness.

All glibness aside, Crowe deserves some kudos for what is, in part at least, an unflinching account of the horrors faced on the battlefield by mostly volunteer infantry, many still in their teens, willing to fight for king and country. His lens does not shy away from the visceral carnage wrought by mortar shells and gunfire, which may well be to the distaste of some viewers. It’s a gutsy move from a first-time director to give us such hauntingly gory, grisly images, which stand out all the more in the context of the softer story that surrounds them.

The director stars as Joshua Connor, a farmer who leaves his dusty homestead in the Outback after the suicide of his grieving wife, bound for the dying Ottoman Empire on the trail of his three sons missing, presumed dead, in the carnage at Gallipoli. Believing his gift for water divination will lead him to their resting place among the thousands of unnamed dead, Connor sidesteps the red tape of officialdom and makes his own way to the peninsula, where the pity of the local commander (Jai Courtney) and his Turkish counterpart Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) becomes something else when Connor’s sublime perception has surprising and far-reaching results.

What’s at first a sentimental drama then jumps between hints of magical realism, as Connor hallucinates the horrors that unfolded five years before; elements of Western adventure amid a Turkish nationalist uprising; and soft-focus romance as Crowe’s typically gruff gentleman grows close to the landlady of his Constantinople hotel (the curiously non-Turkish Olga Kuryenko) and her cheeky, cherubic son. (Not to mention the inevitable drunken punch-up that cued the ‘Fightin’ Around the World’ song in my head.)

Within all of that, Crowe the director shows he has a knack for what makes a memorable scene. A breathtaking dust storm steals the film’s first act, while later he makes liberal use of camera and editing tricks, such as stretched-out Dutch angles surely inspired by Sam Raimi (who gave him his first big Hollywood role in 1995’s The Quick and the Dead). They speak to a filmmaker excited by the medium and its power to tell a story more than words.

More’s the pity that most of the time The Water Diviner conveys the workmanlike feel of a TV movie. When Crowe really gets to grips with the horrors of war, that’s where the film’s real raging heart lies. Even the chase picture that it morphs into in the final act has a gravity apart from the derring-do of your Indiana Joneses and what-have-you, with an understanding that the Ottomans lost as much as the ANZACs on those killing fields. The rest of the story, unfortunately, is romanticised magic-hour fluff, far too comfortable for its own good as it plops for the crowd-pleasing feelgood factor, and undermining what’s really a commendable effort that shows a lot of promise.

The Water Diviner opened nationwide on Friday April 3rd

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