The Water Diviner

January 10, 2015
Russell Crowe in 'The Water Diviner' (2014)
Russell Crowe in 'The Water Diviner' (2014)

In the 1960s Anzac Day was routinely criticised as a celebration of war and a debased, drunken spectacle. Nowadays, in a country of far greater ethnic diversity, April 25 is treated with reverence. Indeed, to voice those criticisms that were commonplace in the 60s would be to risk being branded with the ultimate insult: “un-Australian”.

The revived interest in Anzac Day says a lot about the changing face of Australian culture. If we appear to be more patriotic than we were 40 years ago we are also richer, more comfortable and fearful. The irreverent side of the Australian temperament has been submerged in warm, cosy feelings about our collective good fortune. Although Donald Horne used the phrase ‘The Lucky Country’ with irony in 1964, most people today would see it as a straightforward description of our state of being.

In his first outing as a director Russell Crowe imagines an audience that still believes in the idea of Australia as a land of rugged individualists. The Water Diviner is unashamedly corny in its portrait of the pioneering farmer grinding out a living from a remote property that is more dust than soil. At the beginning of the film there is only a man and his cattle dog, searching for water in the parched earth.

Crowe’s Joshua Connor is the strong, silent type, but also possessed of vaguely psychic powers that allow him to find the right place to dig a well. Yet Connor’s super powers cannot prevent his three sons from going off to war in answer to Britain’s call. All three will disappear on a single day during the Gallipoli campaign, driving their mother (Jacqueline MacKenzie), into a fatal bout of depression. On his wife’s grave our hero vows to travel to Gallipoli and bring his children home.

The only true part of the story is that there really was a lone Australian father who went to Gallipoli in search of his missing offspring. It would be surprising to learn that his experiences in Turkey bore any resemblance to Connor’s adventures.

The Water Diviner is an historical romance that uses the tragic events of the Gallipoli campaign as a backdrop for one man’s personal quest. Connor surprises everyone when he turns up at the battlefield in 1919 while Major Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney) and the Australian army are busy trying to identify their dead. Soon his psychic powers have allowed him to locate the spot where two out of three of his sons died. His determination impresses Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) the Turkish officer who has been brought along to help the Australians.

Hasan is a proud Turkish nationalist who resents the fact that Turkey may have won a battle but lost the war. His relationship with Connor is one of those bonds of masculine, mutual respect which seem to feature in most of Crowe’s movies. Before too long Connor will have enlisted Hasan’s aid and paid him back in heroic exploits.

While we are never allowed to forget the reasons that have brought Connor to Turkey there are moments – notably a James Bond-style pursuit over the rooftops of Constantinople – when we could be watching any action flick.

The film even has its own Bond bird, as the inevitable romantic subplot allows Connor to meet a glamorous landlady – Ayshe – played by Olga Kurylenko, who got her big break in Quantum of Solace (2008). In true Mills & Boon fashion Ayshe takes an instant dislike to Connor, which gradually turns into love as she learns that beneath the hulking exterior he is actually the Edwardian equivalent of a sensitive new age guy. They are also united in mourning, as she has lost a husband in the war.

The catalyst for this hesitant romance is Ayshe’s cheeky son, Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), who speaks excellent English for a Turkish boy. As a character, Orhan is altogether too cute – a walking plot device that wants to steal the show. And this is the biggest problem with The Water Diviner – the tendency to fall back on scenarios and figures that lapse too readily into stereotype and sentimentality. Even the portrayal of the British occupying forces is a caricature, with the unsympathetic Captain Brindley being played by Australian comic actor, Dan Wylie.

This is frustrating because there is a lot to like about this movie, notably the cinematography of Andrew Lesnie which is always engaging and occasionally breathtaking. One can also appreciate Crowe’s heartfelt attempts to see the war from the Turkish perspective. Although Australia’s losses were terrible, they represent a mere fraction of the numbers sacrificed on the Turkish side. While Australia lost 8,700 men and New Zealand, 2,700; Turkish casualties were in excess of 60,000. As both sides were fighting on behalf of other nations, Gallipoli must rank as one of the most brutal and futile campaigns in military history.

Crowe is at his best in the battlefield scenes, which evoke a danger and tension that seems almost claustrophobic. The switching back and forth in time and space from Connor’s barren farmland to the Gallipoli peninsular creates an effective counterpoint between the harsh country from which the Anzacs came, and the wilderness in which they perished. It’s a shame the film’s obvious sincerity of feeling was not matched by a story less enamoured of cinematic cliches.

The Water Diviner
Directed by Russell Crowe
Written by Andrew Knight & Andrew Anastasios
Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Dylan Georgiades, Jai Courtney, Jacqueline MacKenzie, Dan Wylie
Australia/Turkey/USA, rated M, 111 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 10th January, 2015.