Perhaps the most notable aspect of The Water Diviner is that it marks the first narrative feature directed by veteran actor Russell Crowe. That the film is likely to be remembered in cinematic history for this novelty rather than for its merits is a distinction that should not be lost on prospective audiences. While there are indeed some merits to recommend this production, they are significantly overshadowed by its shortcomings. Falling prey to the predominant vice of many actors who step behind the camera, Crowe’s film often emphasizes performance at the expense of story. This is not to say that the performances are particularly noteworthy, but that plotting and character development are blatantly overlooked in favor of unnecessary camera flourishes and extraneous action sequences. While Crowe’s camera setups and compositions are generally competent, his insecurity as a director is betrayed by excessive closeups, occasionally incomprehensible angle shots and gimmicky use of trick lenses; in short, his visual reach exceeds his technical grasp.
To say that the narrative suffers for Crowe’s attempts at visual stylization is something of an understatement. Crowe plays Joshua Connor, a rugged Australian farmer who seeks closure after his family is torn apart by the vicissitudes of war. Nothing wrong with that story so far, but the longer it goes on the more evident it becomes that this was never meant to be a moving character study or a meditation on the human cost of warfare. Instead, this is 111 minutes of machismo-driven fantasy, apparently intended to let Crowe display the various facets of his Russell Crowe-ness. Unfortunately, the Crowe of L.A. Confidential or Gladiator does not join us here. Sure, we have him riding horseback in a sandstorm, riding horseback in a gunfight, romancing a (much) younger woman, besting a gang of thugs in a fistfight over said woman, befriending a grizzled Turkish officer, hanging out shirtless with said officer and just about every other conceivable Crowe cliche, but his prior intensity has been replaced with a maudlin sentimentality and vague listlessness. Ultimately, it is this sentimentality that proves to be the The Water Diviner’s undoing.
The film, in attempting to be poignant, devolves gradually into the silly. What should have been a pivotal trench battle sequence focusing on the death of Connor’s sons, while unquestionably brutal, proves emotionally unaffecting. A later return to the epilogue of this sequence, intended to deliver a significant plot twist, only reaffirms its tediousness while failing to provide any concomitant catharsis. A melodramatic subplot involving a budding romance with widow Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) falls similarly flat due to a distinct lack of chemistry between the leads and underscores a subtextual assertion that imperial domination of native peoples is preferable to the autonomous adherence of those peoples to their cultural traditions. Even Connor’s “mateship” with Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), possibly the most developed relationship in the film, seems forced and arbitrary. Most damning, however, is the story’s abandonment of the protagonist’s eponymous dowsing abilities in favor of full-blown precognitive visions that are never questioned by the other characters or addressed by the script. I was secretly hoping the late Graham Chapman would suddenly appear in uniform to put a stop to the whole affair, but sadly this was not to be.
If The Water Diviner wears its intentions on its sleeve, it ultimately fails to achieve them. Rather than delving into the horrors and heroism of World War I in any meaningful way, the plot meanders through an unfocused morass of ill-conceived patriotism, unconvincing romance and insipid action sequences. If it takes a unique creative vision to careen so recklessly through such varied emotional terrain without evoking even the slightest bit of pathos, then Crowe has succeeded in distinguishing his vision as unique. This is not a compliment but also not an outright condemnation. Rated R for war violence and disturbing images.