I don’t want to give Russell Crowe a hard time over his direction of The Water Diviner (Warner Bros., 4.24), a melancholy, handsome period drama about love, loss and grief. Okay, with pretty landscapes and occasional action scenes. I felt as if it was always trying to soak me with emotion. Or yank it out of me. I found it more meandering than mesmerizing but let’s be gracious and acknowledge that Crowe tried like hell to be Peter Weir here. Give him a B for effort at least. There’s always the next time.
On top of which Crowe gives a balmy, kind-hearted performance as an Australian farmer, Joshua Connor, who’s looking for some kind of closure over the loss of his three sons who were killed during the terrible battle of Gallipoli, which took the lives of 46,000 Allied soldiers (over 8000 Australians) and wounded 250,000.
The film is basically about Connor travelling to Turkey in 1919 to find his son’s bodies and if possible lay them to rest with a prayer, but what can happen with all three having suffered so horribly with so little to show? We know the answer from the trailer. This recently widowed man of 50 will fall in love with an alluring Turkish woman (Olga Kurylenko) who’s a good 20 years younger. But right away this feels a bit off. The problem (and I’m not trying to be an asshole here) is that Crowe has become too girthy to play a romantic lead. Maximus has morphed into Peter Ustinov in Spartacus, and grown a thatch of gray hair in the bargain. I know he wasn’t this gutty in Darren Aronofsky‘s Noah so you tell me.
So we need something else to make the journey seem worth it, and this eventually happens in the form of a discovery that perhaps (should I spoil?) all three sons didn’t perish after all. And then it’s back to Kurylenko and a glass of something or other and a warm wrap-up.
I felt problems and irritations early on with this thing. The main titles seemed too large and bright. The decision to explain locations and circumstances in typeface felt clumsy. How is a farmer supposed to keep his sons from enlisting in the Australian armed forces and going off to war? By putting them in a cage? Why is Connor’s wife (Jacqueline McKenzie) still guilt-tripping him three or four years later about not having found his sons? Why didn’t he try earlier? Why didn’t she kill herself sooner? Who asks a passport stamper for directions to anywhere? Why do we have to listen to a dying guy groan over and over and over?
And as long as we’re asking, what the hell was World War I all about anyway? Aside from hundreds of thousands of young men being gruesomely killed, that is? And what was at stake, exactly, during the battle of Gallipoli? How is anyone expected to feel anything but numb over a slaughter this massive and grotesque and altogether ridiculous?
I just wanted to leave Gallipoli, catch a steamer for Marseilles and get on a train to Paris.
I know that if you’re using World War I for material, you have to keep it simple. Peter Weir‘s Gallipoli (’81) was about innocent boys thrown into the meat grinder. Stanley Kubrick‘s Paths of Glory, set in the World War I trenches, is about regular soldiers being unfairly blamed for cowardice. But I really couldn’t make heads or tails of roughly half of what was going on (or had gone on) in The Water Diviner. What do I know about who died and for what reasons? Or about the Turkish civil war after World War I ended? What do I care about any of this Ottoman Empire crap? The word “unfathomable” came to mind at one point.
I was mainly studying the finesse, or, truth be told, the lack thereof. The bottom line is that Crowe bit off more than he could reasonably be expected to chew with this thing, being a first-timer and all. But I admire his gumption. And he does manage to get several things right here and there. The Water Diviner isn’t a painful thing to sit through — just a frustrating one.
All my life I’ve never understood why World War I happened. Warren Beatty‘s John Reed said it was about “profits.” I also know that Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif fought against the Turks in Lawrence of Arabia, and that the Turks were therefore “the bad guys.” And that the ANZAC forces (i.e., Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.) went to Gallipoli to back up the British, etc.
Here, at least, is a boilerplate timeline: (a) On 6.28.14 Serbian fanatic Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo; (b) One month later (7.28.14) Austria declares war against Serbia and the war was on; (c) A war between Austria and Serbia meant a war between Austria and Russia, which was Serbia’s traditional ally; (d) War between Austria and Russia meant Germany, bound by the Triple Alliance treaty to Austria, was at war with Russia; (e) Russia at war with Germany meant France and Britain, bound by alliances with Russia known as the Triple Entente, were also at war with Germany. Or something like that.
To each his own, that’s all I know…if dogs run free.