The Water Diviner

Director: Russell Crowe (2015)

Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe makes an ambitious directorial debut in this handsome and exciting period action adventure.

Set in Turkey in the aftermath of the First World War, it’s a sweeping and occasionally sentimental story filled with sacrifice, suffering, grief, duty, mysticism and romance.

Crowe casts himself as Joshua Connor, a farmer and the titular water diviner. We first encounter him and his loyal dog in the digging in the red dusty earth for water. Crowe the director cheekily demonstrates his confidence by riffing on Daniel Day-Lewis in 2007’s There Will Be Blood.

After the tragic death of his wife he swears on her grave he will return with the bodies of their three sons. Four years earlier they were all lost in the battle of Gallipoli on the Turkish peninsular. The money-grabbing church offers no solace to Connor, he’s even smacked with a cross at one point.

He travels from the Outback to Istanbul where he struggles against pickpockets, the Turkish resistance, invading Greeks and the belligerent British army bureaucracy.

Connor’s helped along the way by Turkish soldiers Major Hasan and Sergeant Jemal (Yilmaz Erdogan and Cem Yilmaz). He also finds plenty of time to form a gentle bond with a beautiful hotel receptionist.

Turkish culture is treated with respect and in some detail. We see inside the fabulous Blue Mosque and witness several political protests. There are markets, religious ceremonies, brothels, cigarettes and raki. As a cultural exchange Connor teaches the Turks to play cricket.

The Water Diviner is built with the director’s virtues; it’s solid, honest, macho and hard-working, it’s easy on the eye and and offers unexpected moments of charm and humour.

Crowe underplays his own performance but still allows himself a lot of derring-do. There’s plenty of riding, fighting, drinking and even a rooftop escape to keep him busy.

As director he delivers some terrific action moments – especially an excellent sandstorm sequence – and there’s a harrowing depiction of trench warfare. We see the retreat form Gallipoli from the Turkish point of view, proving their soldiers are as brave and foolhardy as the ANZACS.

The film is less steady when Crowe approaches the delicate subject of the opposite sex, demonstrating he’s more comfortable with animals and children than he is with women. Connor even confesses he’s no good at courtship – it could be the director speaking.

There’s a decent stab at providing the character of Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) with more to do than just being the love interest. She’s intelligent and proud yet realistic about life. As well as beating carpets and fetching wood, she runs the hotel and cares for her invalid father. She faces choices about her future which will affect her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades).

Kurylenko seems uncertain in her early scenes though she improves as the film progresses – however the candlelit romantic subplot with Connor slows down the story when it should be gathering pace.

Faring far less well as a rounded character is her friend Natalia the prostitute (Isabel Lucas). She’s ever so jolly and lives upstairs in the hotel.

Crowe has thrown himself into the deep-end with this film but it’s no surprise he swims not sinks under the pressure.

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