starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz
screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios
directed by Russell Crowe
by Walter Chaw The Water Diviner is premium schmaltz. Connoisseurs of such will find its top-shelf qualities to include a Witness-like star-cross'd pas de deux; dead wives and sons; surrogate wives and sons; surrogate father figures fighting, Footloose-like, against oppressive cultures; a Fisher King rescue from insanity; and enough war-movie boilerplate to choke a War Horse. Its direct antecedent is of course Peter Weir's Gallipoli, except that Gallipoli is something of a masterpiece that balances its war journal with strong characters and a tragic ending in keeping with its grim subject matter. The Water Diviner, on the contrary, is a bodice-ripper chock-a-block with hole-digging and sky-beseeching, along with an Outback dust-storm that points, if the trailers for Mad Max: Fury Road are any indication, to this year's most inexplicable evidence of zeitgeist.
Russell Crowe, making his directorial debut with all the expected hubris and lack of shame, also stars as the titular witch, Connor, who's able to dowse water and, later, to conjure the location of his dead boys four years after they were gunned down on a grim Turkish battleground-turned-mass grave. He does this because his wife Don't Look Nows herself in a shallow pond on their blasted property, leading to a moment where our square-jawed hero rejects God, which only exists to set up the moment he finds Him again. The film is like an executive's steel-ball desk toy, ping-ponging back and forth with deadening cause/effect predictability. See its complete lack of imagination in flat, shot-reverse-shot dialogue exchanges. See evidence of too much myopia in its narrative, resulting in jagged editing that, were it not for the stultifying familiarity of the whole thing, would render the story impossible to follow. The Water Diviner manages the trick of being overstuffed and empty at the same time; narratively confusing yet lacking in any kind of surprise.
Anyway, Connor goes to Turkey, dowses his sons' corpses, and discovers that his eldest, Arthur (Ryan Corr), is still alive somewhere. The English Patient, Cold Mountain, The Kite Runner...you know the drill. He also meets a young--Turkish?--widow, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), and woos her with his blustery, Aussie brand of wounded virility and sort of adopts--you know how it is--Ayshe's son, Orhan (Dylan Giorgiades). Because of the subtitling, I read "Orhan” as "Orphan,” which struck me as insensitive, particularly given that the plot point here is that Orhan doesn't know his father is dead and thinks they're just on an extended vacation at their uncle's hotel. Anyway, Connor goes searching for his boy, gets a new wife, discovers a new son, and meanwhile there are all these flashbacks to the front, where we get to see how Connor's sons played out some Erich Maria Remarche one-act play against a No Man's Land backdrop. Crikey, this movie is terrible.
Between the stock characters, the masturbatory Dances with Wolves self-congratulation, and the obvious grasps for greatness through pandering to the slowest kid in class, The Water Diviner is the best Angelina Jolie film Angelina Jolie didn't direct. I once thought of Crowe as the best parts of Richard Burton: masculine, brilliant, a thinking man's man of action. The only reason Gladiator looks better in the rearview is because Crowe's performance has only deepened with time. He plays the same character here, but in the service of a simpering, feel-good prestige vehicle that doesn't even have the courage to portray the hostility towards Europeans in Turkey in 1919 beyond a single "English Go Home!” chant from a carefully-footnoted Nationalist parade. It allows Crowe to in fact exemplify the worst parts of Richard Burton: the arrogance, the blather and the solipsism. Cut out the tortured extreme close-ups of Crowe's grief-stricken, tears-and/or-sweat-wet mug and the film would be a half-hour long. The landscapes are as pretty as the emotions are empty. If there's any good to come of this thing, it's that it made me want to watch Gallipoli again, and might inspire the same urge in others.