THE WATER DIVINER
It feels like whenever an actor of some star status gets behind the camera, it is obligatory that he turn out some kind of historical epic Kevin Costner with Dances with Wolves (1990), Mel Gibson with Braveheart (1995) or at least takes up biographical/true story subject matter Warren Beatty with Bugsy (1991), Robert Redford and Quiz Show (1994), Ron Howard and A Beautiful Mind, Ed Harris and Pollock (2004), George Clooney with Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005), Robert De Niro and The Good Shepherd (2006), Ben Affleck and Argo (2012). It is almost the sense of having conquered the box-office and won awards that actors turned directors need to prove that they are more than that and so choose subjects designed to appeal to the awards crowds. It is no different when Russell Crowe takes up the camera here.
The surprise about Crowe who has a reputation as a hot-headed hellraiser is that he when he takes up the camera he chooses such a traditional subject matter The Water Diviner seems a film pitched to the same over-sixties crowds who are all reverentially lined up with poppies on their lapels for Australias Remembrance Day. The Battle of Gallipoli holds a peculiar nationalistic place in the Australian zeitgeist somewhat akin to Pearl Harbor for the Americans but for the fact that it took place on a battlefield half a world away. Not unexpectedly, Crowe wheels out all the epic-sized filmmaking stuff for the occasion. There is the stunning photography, the richly detailed costuming and production design intended to place us there inside another era, the larger than life events, even epic-sized pieces of show-off dramatic flourish like the creations of sandstorms in the desert. The film moves predictably across its huge canvas and hits all the cues that appeal to these audiences the struggle of the parent to be reunited with their child following the loss, the end that comes on a predictably upbeat romance. I didnt dislike The Water Diviner; on the other hand, it never greatly moved me.
One of the surprises is how balanced an attitude Crowe takes towards the War. Both sides of the conflict are shown in a sympathetic light there are few films of the much more cinematically depicted World War II era that shows the Germans in a decent and honourable light as the Turks are here. There is one potent scene where Russell Crowe turns on Turkish major Yilmaz Erdogan and accuses you murdered my son, to be calmly reminded It was you who invaded us. If there are any villains throughout, this comes in the direction of the pompous British. Or perhaps more mutedly Steve Bastoni as Olga Kurylenkos brother-in-law who demands that she accept a marriage arrangement. The script is also notable for paying detail to the culture of Turkey and depicting the political turmoil of the region after the War. Yilmaz Erdogan is seen rallying to the cause of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern, post-Imperial Turkey, and wound in are issues like the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire and the war with Greece over Armenia. These are certainly not issues that the average Western film or historical epic has deigned to take up before, even if you feel that The Water Diviner only skates over the surface of them.
The Water Diviner is included here for some mildly Magical Realist elements. Russell Crowes character is the titular water diviner and we see him on several occasions using the metal rods to search for water. (Claims about the power of water divining also known as dowsing have been extensively scientifically tested and found to have no credible effect so must be regarded at best as a pseudo-science, at worst mystical woo, thus edging the film over into fantasy). Elsewhere, Crowe has precognitive dreams and becomes certain that his son is alive, while Olga Kurylenkos character is said to be able to read futures in coffee grinds (where presumably she sees that she and Crowe will end up together). Oddly, these seem touches that are more suited to a light fluffy Magical Realist romance look no further than Crowes Rough Magic than a serious work about the Great War. When it comes to their actual portrayal, Crowes treatment as a director seems oddly flat. Apart from the opening scene where he locates and digs a well on his farm, all of these come with a conspicuous lack of magic or wonder in their depiction.