One hundred years ago this week marked the start of the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey, the World War I campaign that lasted 8-1/2 months, claimed over 100,000 lives and resulted in a stalemate between the two sides. In THE WATER DIVINER, Oscar® winning actor and first-time director, Russell Crowe, plays an Australian farmer who travels to Gallipoli to find the remains of his three sons, who were lost in battle there.
THE WATER DIVINER is based on the book of the same name by Andrew Anastasios and Dr. Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios. The germ of the story came from a letter from a colonel in the Imperial War Graves Unit, who noted that an Australian man came to Gallipoli in search of his sons’ graves. (World War I marked the first time that attempts were made to recover and identify the bodies of fallen soldiers, and provide them with proper graves.)
In the film, Joshua Connor (played by Crowe) not only has the ability to douse water from underground sources, it seems he can find pretty much anything including his sons in a Australian dust storm and their bones on a plateau overlooking the Dardanelles. After his wife dies tragically, Connor promises her that he’ll go off to Turkey to bring her boys back home and bury them next to her. With only one change of clothing (if that) and a copy of Arabian Nights in hand, he makes the arduous, three-month journey by ship across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, and across the Mediterranean Sea. I take more than that with me for a weekend in Mid-Levels and I don’t even look that good when the journey from my office in Central is over!
Suspended belief aside, Connor arrives at the rather Disney-fied port of Constantinople and is immediately brought by a precocious boy to a picturesque inn that is run by his mother, Ayshe (played by Olga Kurylenko), a fetching woman who lost her husband in the same battle. Thinking Connor is wasting his time, she nonetheless decides to tell him how he can get to Gallipoli, which is off-limits to civilians. Connor boards another boat and soon enough arrives at the mass graveyard where he is immediately intercepted by the British military officer who is in charge of the Unit. Not surprisingly, the lieutenant-colonel wants Connor gone as quickly as possible – to where, we have no idea. It’s not like there’s a Sheraton around the corner. But a retired Turkish officer who is assisting in the search and identification of the bodies says that Connor is the only father who has come to look for his boys so he should be allowed to stay.
THE WATER DIVINER is not a bad film and kudos to Crowe for his first effort behind the camera, but one can’t help but wonder if the story could have been a bit more magical and larger-than-life. It’s not every day that one meets a diviner yet people seem to take his ability all in stride. (And if Conner really can find anything, why doesn’t he look for gold or opals in Australia instead of being a poor farmer?) The film also suffers from a hefty dose of stereotyping. The British are all surly and elitist; the Turks are all hot-blooded. Even Connor’s pastor in Australia is a bit too holier than Thou. The best scenes are when Crowe plays it rough and rugged – almost Indiana Jones-like. He rides a horse a few times in the film – once in the Australian outback and the other in Turkey – and those are the most exciting to watch.
Unfortunately, there is an unnecessary romantic subplot involving Connor and Ayshe that doesn’t go anywhere. While Kurylenko is nice to look at, she is not much of an actress. Her Turkish accent wavers, often revealing her Ukrainian roots. I’ve seen her in a few films over the years (such as TO THE WONDER) and I’m never impressed. For Crowe, while this is his best performance in years, considering his recent body of work includes NOAH and LES MISÉRABLES, that’s not much of a compliment.
Maybe the book is better.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 35:00.)
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