“The Water Diviner” Review: A Sentimental Journey of Folk Magic and Fisticuffs
The most storied campaign of the ANZACs – the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps – was their siege of Gallipoli on a steep shoreland of the Ottoman Empire during the first World War. The soldiers from Down Under fought for their king, George V of England, against the Turks, allies of the German Kaiser. The ANZACs lost the battle but won the war. Their sacrifice is honored across Australia and New Zealand with statues and plaques, but like all WWI engagements the episode is also condemned as a senseless waste of life.
Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner, which he directs and stars in, walks that line with aplomb. It is a romantic tribute to an Australian family who gave all three of their sons to the war, but it is also conspicuously sympathetic to the soldiers and families on the Turkish side of the lines.
Crowe is Joshua Connor, a farmer in the northern Victoria. He and his wife raised three boys in the outback, which was no easy feat: there’s little water, and apocalyptic bushfires. That they survived those conditions is attributed to Crowe’s sad-eyed stoicism: he races headlong into a fire on horseback in a flashback sequence that is gripping, if not visually believable, and he finds underground water reservoirs with the aid of intuition and a divining stick.
Water divining is 19th-century snake oil, but this movie believes in it earnestly. The conceit might not be so silly if it were only water Connor could divine, but his powers of psychic perception extend to buried family members as well. After he expresses his skepticism about an outback preacher’s brand of supernaturalism, he heads off to Turkey to find the final resting places of his three sons. The war is over, and the British and Turkish armies are now uneasily working together to identify their dead. They don’t want Connor, a civilian, walking around in restricted areas, but Connor finds a way in and soon tells them with absolute certainty whether his sons are among those beneath the dirt.
Family members having a sixth sense about each other is an old trope, of course, but this movie’s commitment to the theme of folk magic extends to other characters as well. When Crowe arrives in Istanbul an enterprising young street urchin convinces him to stay in his family’s European-style hotel. The boy’s mother, a young Turkish war widow played by Olga Kurylenko, can read people’s destinies at the bottom of coffee cups. Crowe and Kurylenko play such scenes with eye-watering emotionality and without a trace of irony.
We don’t need tea leaves or ESP to know where all this is going. It’s clear early on who’s going to befriend whom despite their diverse backgrounds, who’s going to fall in love after an initial period of tension and misunderstanding, and what Crowe is going to find out about his sons’ last moments, shown in periodic flashbacks. All the film’s characters are conventional types, and the arc of Connor’s quest goes through conventional stages. His helper is a sagacious Turkish commander (Yılmaz Erdoğan) who, like Connor himself, is free of prejudice and gifted with a clear understanding of the historical moment in which they meet. Nothing anybody says or thinks or does is exactly what a real person in 1919 would have said or thought or done, but it’s exactly what audiences in 2015 want to imagine they did.
As a result, everybody is likable, and everything is safe. This is a crowd-pleaser, a movie to recommend to anyone, but not a movie that’s going to shake the earth or win awards.
As a director, though, Crowe is more than competent. He makes both action and romance look gorgeous and effortless. He reveals a love for “magic hour,” the time when the deep orange sun casts light laterally onto actors and buildings as it approaches the horizon. Everything in the movie has a warm, glowing patina. It’s as pretty as war has looked since The English Patient, and even the scenes of carnage have a noble luster. Bodies, particularly the bodies of the three Connor boys, are arranged in perfect, beatific poses.
It takes a long while for Crowe’s trademark meaty punches to come into play, but when they do the hits don’t stop. The final act allows him to use his physical powers as much as his mental ones. The runtime begins to feel a little long as the two-hour mark comes and goes; 100 minutes might have been better for a film that is, despite its magic and its setting, rather ordinary.
So where does it fall among similar films? Let’s get divining.
The Water Diviner vs. The English Patient
The English Patient is a gorgeous-looking movie with strong performances from an ensemble cast. It’s oozingly syrupy, but with some shocking punctuations of violence. It’s like The Water Diviner on steroids, and it wins by virtue of operating on a grander scale.
Winner: The English Patient
The Water Diviner vs. Breaker Morant
The greatest piece of historical Australian cinema, Breaker Morant, is part war picture and part courtroom drama. It’s a must-see for its intelligence and its landscapes, which carry it to an easy victory here.
Winner: Breaker Morant
The Water Diviner vs. Robin Hood
Russell Crowe likes to insert himself into historical settings and kick a little ass in the name of justice. And the thing is, he’s good at it. Water Diviner shows that he can direct this kind of thing better than the great Ridley Scott can, because it is far better-looking and more emotionally affecting than 2010’s Robin Hood.
Winner: The Water Diviner