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Movie Review of the Week: “The Water Diviner”

Movie Review of the Week: “The Water Diviner”
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By Alison Bailes

Russell Crowe wears two hats in “The Water Diviner”: actor and director. Unfortunately only one of them fits him well.  But despite some cumbersome turns and over the top melodrama, this Australian award winning drama is warmly satisfying especially when Crowe is on screen.

At once a historical epic about war and loss…and a gauzy romance between attractive foreigners with sexy accents, Crowe juggles a few too many balls in his directorial debut. When the earnest story turns into an unlikely actioner in the final stretch, he loses control and the balls come bouncing down. Up until that point, his on-screen charisma and the  period setting hide a multiple of sins.

Crowe plays Joshua Connor, an Aussie farmer (and ace water diviner) who in 1919 is mourning the loss of his three sons at the battle of Gallipoli. When his wife commits suicide in her grief, he determines to travel to Turkey in an attempt to locate his sons’ remains and bring them home for burial. With cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy) behind the camera, the Australian outback is bathed in hues of yellow and gold and sun-burnished flashbacks acquaint us with the three boys as children. Crowe is shown to be a burly, stoic, loving husband and father with a strong moral compass. In other words, he’s playing a variation of the character that put him on the cinematic map in “Gladiator”, but it’s a role that suits him and his earnest do-rightness serves the story well.

Adapted by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios from a book by Andrew Anastasios and Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios, “The Water Diviner” takes Connor to Constantinople where he finds lodging at the hotel of war widow Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her frowning brother-in-law Omer (Steve Bastoni). Ayshe’s fragile beauty and her appealing young son leave no question as to where the story is going and Ayshe bonds with the strapping, bronzed stranger on her doorstep.  This side-plot, and one about Omer pressuring Ayshe to marry him, are a distraction from Connor’s quest and may have worked better in the book where things have more time to develop.

Connor manages to bribe his way to Gallipoli where he meets Lt. Col. Hughes (Jai Courtney) of the Imperial War Graves Unit. Hughes is working with Turkish war veteran Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan, very good) in an effort to locate and identify bodies and Connor discovers information that sets him off on another journey. At this point, the script stretches credulity and the pacing speeds up to such a degree that the third act feels rushed and over-crammed with plot twists and revelations.

Crowe may have taken on more than he can chew as a director but his performance feels real and is deeply affecting. The film won an Australian Film Institute Best Picture Award which speaks to its professional, glossy sheen and depiction of events in WWI history that resonate with Australians and New Zealanders.  For a more graphic, and more effective take on the horrors of Gallipoli, American viewers would be well served by checking out Peter Weir’s 1981 “Gallipoli” with a young Mel Gibson.

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