Is Russell Crowe Enough to Keep 'The Water Diviner' Afloat?

There are some good scenes in Crowe's directorial debut, but it mostly feels like a fumbled opportunity to make a much more significant film.

The Water Diviner Directed by Russell Crowe; written by Andrew Knight, Andrew Anastasios; with Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan

“The Water Diviner” is Russell Crowe’s first feature film as director, and in many ways it reminded me of the first two movies directed by Angelina Jolie – especially the second one, last year’s “Unbroken.” What made me think of Jolie’s films is not the fact that Crowe also came to directing after a long career as an actor – a phenomenon I find consistently intriguing, since it is always interesting to see how actors’ work behind the camera complements their acting and reflects their screen personas. It was also not because “The Water Diviner” was set during World War I, just as Jolie’s movie took place during World War II.

Rather, what connected the two movies for me is that both have epic ambitions, but seem as though they were made using a “how-to” guide for efficient film direction. “The Water Diviner” follows some of the instructions in a satisfactory way, but stumbles in many other places; above all, it is that sense of underlying “rules” that gives the movie a mechanical feel and keeps it from being a work that expresses a distinctive cinematic vision.

“The Water Diviner” appears on the 100th anniversary of the invasion of Gallipoli by French and British forces, aided by troops from Australia and New Zealand, in an effort to beat the peninsula’s Turkish rulers. Intended to speed up the end of World War I, the invasion was a debacle that claimed the life of over 100,000 soldiers on both sides. The operation was especially traumatic for Australia, and already in 1981 the Australian director Peter Weir made an excellent movie on the subject, “Gallipoli,” starring a young Mel Gibson. Whereas Weir’s film was a startlingly realist war picture, Crowe now returns to the same event using the form of a melodrama. Although there are some flashbacks to the battle itself, the movie focuses on the anguish of a father and his efforts to locate the bodies of his three sons, who were all killed in action, and take them home to Australia to be buried.

Unlike Jolie, who has yet to appear in any movie of her own making, Crowe also stars in his debut feature as Joshua Connor, a farmer with a supernatural ability to locate underground water springs (water is an image that runs through the entire movie, and Crowe’s use of it is at times too calculated). Four years after Gallipoli, in the wake of yet another family tragedy, Connor travels to Turkey and begins his search at a hotel in Constantinople – today’s Istanbul – which is run by a lovely, energetic young widow (Olga Kurylenko).

On his quest, which brings him to Gallipoli, Connor meets several other people who try either to help him or to stop him. These include British officers, some of them sympathetic to his desire to locate his sons’ bodies, others caught up in the British military’s stiff bureaucracy; a Turkish officer who also suffered a loss of his own during the war; and – because it is that kind of movie – a mischievous street urchin. It is the latter who leads Connor to the attractive hotelkeeper, whose role in the story demonstrates the formulaic screenwriting from which much of “The Water Diviner” suffers.

Crowe’s presence is steady and restrained, as always; he is the kind of screen actor whose style I admire and like, and clearly he has tried to bring the same kind of style to his first project as director. Unfortunately, it does not really work. “The Water Diviner” is occasionally moving – how could it be otherwise, given the story it tells? – but the result has too many weaknesses that suggest Crowe’s thinking as a director is still elementary and mechanical. Among these flaws we might count the touristy fashion in which he documents the movie’s social and physical landscape, as well as the simple, simplistic way in which “The Water Diviner” says that war – any war, seen from any side – is a terrible thing.

There are some good scenes in “The Water Diviner,” but it mostly feels like a fumbled opportunity: this could have been a much more significant picture than the one Crowe has made. His prosaic direction is unable to elicit from the premise the full emotional and conceptual richness it might have had. It’s hard not to feel that the film is simply an acted-out screenplay, and one that frequently missteps.

“The Water Diviner” is a well intentioned work. But beyond his good intentions, Crowe’s work as director – which may or may not continue; many actors end up directing only a single movie – seems, at this point at least, to be unaware of its own limitations. Above all, it still lacks the inspiration that turns “work” into art.