The Water Diviner tells the story of Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe, who is also making his directorial debut), an Australian well digger. It is 1919, four years after the Battle of Gallipoli, where his sons all died. After his grieving wife commits suicide, Joshua goes off to Turkey to fulfill a promise of finding their sons and bringing them back home to be buried. Joshua doesn’t know anything about Turkey, and he finds that tensions are still high in that region of the world. Much of this happens in the first thirty minutes of the movie, and then the film spirals off into other threads that aren’t quite as compelling.
The film comes to concern itself with Joshua’s relationship with Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), the widow who runs the hotel in which he’s staying. She has a precocious son, and a shady brother-in-law who is trying to get her to marry him. There is also the thread that follows the unlikely friendship he forms with Sgt. Cemal (Yilmaz Erdogan), a Turkish officer who was at Gallipoli and may have been directly responsible for the death of his sons. In the back half of this film, the two become a buddy action team, riding horses through dangerous territory controlled by the invading Greek military.
The movie is a downhill slide. It is promising enough when it starts, displaying a measure of directorial verve, narrative focus, and some capacity for visual storytelling. But even in these early moments, there is some indication of what’s going to go wrong. At one point, the main character is emphatically told, “You can find water, but you can’t even find your sons!” This is pretty much how the film introduces its main plot, spelling out the theme and the main character conflict in one awkwardly yelled line. It is meant to be dramatic, but even in context the line is ridiculous.
And it just gets worse from there. Once Joshua gets to Gallipolli, the film loses its grasp on its narrative. It all gets pretty silly. Joshua’s inner conflict is put aside as he gets involved in an inane romance with Ayshe. These sequences show Crowe’s weaknesses as a director, as he is unable to show any restraint in conveying the growing relationship between the characters. It isn’t enough, for example, for the two to have an intimate late night dinner together. Crowe fills the set with as many candles as can fit into that room, and uses forced slow-mo to further drive that nail home.
Perhaps he is just compensating for the fact that he and Kurylenko share zero romantic chemistry. Kurylenko is putting on a fine performance on her own, often wordlessly communicating her character’s capacity for deep mourning. But when in a scene with Crowe, she is reduced to a romcom heroine. Crowe plays at gravity as always, but he ends up looking pretty perplexed through much of this picture. Yilmaz Erdogan is the brightest spot of this cast, the actor able to show some compelling restraint through the broad melodrama of this picture.
The Water Diviner is filled with weird miscalculations. There are a lot of interesting pieces to this particular story. It just doesn’t feel like a lot of thought has been put into how all these pieces work together. There’s a bit here, for example, that has Joshua fighting off some angry Turkish men who feel he has besmirched their honor. It is a rough, violent sequence that tells a story of cultures clashing and the general tension that surrounds the characters. The very next cut has Joshua half naked in Turkish bath, talking to Cemal while lying on his stomach. It is such a strange transition that one can’t help but laugh. This is a serious picture, but too often its choices elicit laughter.