Saturday 17 September 2022

Movie Review: The Water Diviner (2014)

A post-war drama, The Water Diviner explores themes of recovery from tragedy and broader cross-cultural understanding. An appropriately somber mood is compromised by too much plot.

In 1919, Australian farmer Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe) is still grieving the death of his three sons in the Gallipoli campaign three years prior. Their bodies were never recovered. When his wife Eliza succumbs to her anguish, Joshua makes the long journey to look for his sons' remains in Turkey. He finds the victorious Allies in control of the country, with Australian Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney) leading an excavation of Gallipoli battle sites to recover and identify fallen soldiers. Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan) of the defeated Turkish army provides reluctant help.

As Joshua searches for the remains of his sons, he tangles with Hasan, who was on the battlefield when the Connor boys died. Joshua also gets involved in the life of widowed innkeeper Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her young son Orhan. Joshua and Hasan move from adversaries to allies, and have to survive skirmishes with the invading Greek army.

The directorial debut of Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner is loosely inspired by real events. The title references Joshua's ability to find water wells in otherwise barren land, a talent that may also translate to locating his fallen sons on a scarred battlefield filled with ghosts. The film's scope is ambitious, almost epic, and combines a father's intimate search with cultural detente. Whether in rural Australia, on the desolate Gallipoli terrain, or within a bustling Istanbul, Andrew Lesnie's cinematography is suitably grand, and portrays Turkey after the Great War as a stunned nation seeking a path to recovery. Efficient flashbacks to grinding trench-to-trench battles are effectively gory but avoid excess.

When the narrative remains focused on healing the wounds of war, The Water Diviner maintains promise. But the script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios crosses from expansive to cluttered. Joshua's journey is bogged down in the affairs of the widow Ayshe, who is being pressured into marrying her brother-in-law. Whatever the film wants to say about local culture is lost when the evolving friendship between Joshua and Hasan takes centre stage, followed by the re-emergence of a ragtag Turkish militia to counter unexplained Greek aggression. A surrogate father-son bond between Joshua and Orhan also starts and stops more than once, but not before branching off into a dead-on-arrival subquest for Orhan's father.

Crowe eventually remembers the core plot and gathers up the search-for-the-missing-sons story, achieving some moments of true poignancy. But by then the initial dramatic thrust is dissipated and replaced by unnamed Greek enemies, silly narrow escapes involving cricket bats, and an obligatory overture towards romance.

Crowe directs himself in a soulful and restrained performance, and finds a good foil in Yılmaz Erdoğan's patient portrayal of Major Hasan. Olga Kurylenko is competent but predictable as Ayshe, while the underutilized Jai Courtney brightens proceedings. The Water Diviner finds some wells of inspiration, but also digs then abandons too many holes.

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