‘The Water Diviner’: Fails to reach its lofty goals

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For Digital First Media

Set in the aftermath of World War I, “The Water Diviner” is an amalgam of flashback battlefield scenes with a more personal post-war journey. The latter is replete with a cross-cultural romantic melodrama. “The Water Diviner” stars Russell Crowe, who makes his directorial debut with the film.

Connor (Crowe) is an Australian farmer with an uncanny penchant for ferreting out subterranean reservoirs of water in the parched outback. With the outbreak of the Great World War, Connor’s three sons had done their patriotic duty to King and country by joining the ANZAC expeditionary force. The lads were shipped to Turkey. There, they were deployed as part of the ill-fated invasion of Gallipoli. All three of them go missing on the same day and are presumed dead.

Connor’s wife, Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie, who had appeared opposite Crowe in 1994’s “Romper Stomper”), is consumed with grief. She assails Connor with stinging criticism, “”It’s been four years, you can find water but you can’t find your own children. You lost them.”

When Eliza drowns herself, Connor vows to travel to Turkey, somehow find the bodies of his sons, then return them back to Australia. He plans to bury them alongside their mother’s gravesite. It seems like quite a quixotic venture. The obsession with the fate of a dead human body is evocative of “The English Patient.”

When Connor reaches Constantinople, he is plunged into an altogether alien culture. Rather than the rural isolation and quietude of the Australian countryside, he encounters a bustling city with people speaking in foreign tongues.

Upon arrival, an impish young rascal, Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) seemingly steals Connor’s suitcase. He runs through the streets with it, with Connor in hot pursuit. It turns out that the boy is not a thief after all. He is merely aggressively soliciting business for his mother,  Ayshe (Olga Korylenko, Bond girl in “Quantum of Silence”). She is a hotelier, who rents out rooms in her house.

Ayshe has lost her husband at the front. Now, Ayshe faces unwelcome pressure from her brother-in-law, Omer (Steve Bastoni), to become his second wife. Connor’s evolving relationship with Ayshe and her son form a parallel narrative, which augments the search for his sons.

Connor encounters resistance from the military bureaucracy. An officious British officer, Captain Charles Brindley (Dan Wyllie), warns Connor that civilians have been banned from visiting the site of the Gallipoli invasion. Has Connor traveled thousands of miles for naught?

The erstwhile battlefield at Gallipoli was strewn with the bodies of 10,000 dead ANZAC troops. The corpses are unburied or have been dumped into collective burial pits. It constitutes a grim reminder of a disastrous invasion gone awry.

Australian officer, Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney), had been assigned to be Director of Works for the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Unit. He was charged with the macabre duty of interring the bodies of ANZAC troops in individually marked graves. Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes is assisted by two of his wartime foes from the Ottoman Turk Army, Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) and his loyal subordinate, Sergeant Jemal (Cem Yilmaz).

Connor remains undaunted by Captain Brindley’s caveat. With Orhan’s help, Connor convinces a local fisherman to drop him off near the Gallipoli beachhead. As Connor wades ashore, Lieutenant Colonel Hughes is overcome with incredulity.

Connor develops a tentative relationship with Major Hassan. However, Connor learns that Major Hassan had ordered all wounded enemy troops to be executed. He had been dubbed with the unflattering sobriquet, “Hassan the Assassin.” Enraged by the discovery, Connor tries to attack Major Hassan with a shovel. Only Sergeant Jemal’s intervention prevents Connor from bashing in Major Hassan’s skull. Nevertheless, Major Hassan admires Connor’s resolve and continues to assist him.

Americans tend to have a warped sense of World War I. For many, the period before 1917, when the United States emerged from isolationism and entered the war, is a virtual cipher. The Battle of Gallipoli has little resonance in our collective cultural consciousness.

This marks the 100th anniversary of the commencement of that ill-fated Dardanelles Campaign, which was formulated by Winston Churchill.  The Allied Powers sought to wrest control of the naval route from the Mediterranean Sea to Russia. British and French troops, supported by ANZAC divisions, mounted a naval barrage, followed by a land invasion.  Nearly nine months of pitched battle followed with an estimated 500,000 Allied fatalities. Eventually, Allied troops were forced to retreat in ignominious defeat.

Although “The Water Diviner” is fictional, it resonates with an unmistakable historicity. An opening title card solemnly proclaims that the film is inspired by actual events. It stems from a parenthetical detail discovered Australian writer, Andrew Anastasios. While conducting research on an unrelated project, he came across a letter from Lieutenant Colonel Hughes. His journal included a parenthetical allusion to one bereaved father, “One old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son’s grave.”

This newly-discovered tidbit prompted Anatasios and his wife, the scholar, Dr. Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios, to write the novel, “The Water Diviner.” Then, Andrew Anatasios collaborated with Andrew Knight to construct an original screenplay.

The book and screenplay are premised on some ridiculously far-fetched notions. The film does offer a compelling flashback scene of Crowe galloping full-tilt on a horse to save his young sons from a dust storm. In addition, there are engaging vignettes, which capture the grim reality of war. However, these action elements are poorly integrated with Connor’s subsequent search for his sons and the romantic subplot. Similarly, the marriage of the post-war narrative with retrospective scenes lack a well-developed trajectory.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Jai Courtney in a scene from "The Water Diviner." (Mark Rogers/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Jai Courtney in a scene from “The Water Diviner.” (Mark Rogers/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

As director, Crowe is competent, but is unable to disguise the problems inherent in the misbegotten screenplay. His efforts are enhanced by the extraordinary cinematography of Andrew Lesnie (Peter Jackson’s lensman for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “King Kong”). The film’s other production values are also strong and convincingly capture a bygone era.

As an actor, Crowe is restrained and offers few dramatic flourishes. At 51, he remains credible as an action star. However, Crowe is eclipsed by the Yılmaz Erdoğan, a Turkish actor of Kurdish ethnicity. Erdoğan  is best known for his starring role in “Vizontelle,” a dramedy that set box office records in his native Turkey. Here, Erdoğan delivers a memorably dignified and nuanced performance.

Upon its release last year in Australia, “The Water Diviner” was well received. It was nominated in nine categories for the annual Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards for that country’s products. “The Water Diviner” shared the Best Film Award with, “The Babadook.” It also won the Best Supporting Actor Award for Yılmaz Erdoğan and Best Costume Design for Tess Schofield.

“The Water Diviner” is beautifully mounted film. The look and subject matter of the film recall Peter Weir’s 1981 gem, “Gallipoli.” However, despite its’ lofty goals, “The Water Diviner” falls short of masterpiece status.

R (for war violence including some disturbing images)111 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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