Russell Crowe’s first film as director isn’t a war film as such, but deals with the consequences of war, particularly for those families whose loved ones never return. It’s made with the brio one would expect from this energetic actor, as well as enormous sensitivity and cultural empathy, offering equal weight to those who opposed the Anzac forces.
This even-handedness is immediately apparent as the film opens on the battlefield in Gallipoli, with the Ottomans. As Major Hasan (the charismatic Yilmaz Erdogan) somberly leads his troops over the top, across no man’s land and down into the opposing trenches, it’s only to find them deserted; after eight months of fighting, their enemy has retreated. Rather than euphoria, there is anti-climax, the Turks almost shrugging at the pointlessness of it all.
Moving forward to 1919, we find farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) working his land in Victoria, expertly divining the presence of water and digging a well. Connor has lost three sons at Gallipoli, whose bodies have never been discovered. His wife, buffeted between denial and derangement, chastises him for being able to find water but not their children. When the anguish becomes too much for her, Connor vows to do just that, and bring them home.
His efforts will take him not just to Gallipoli, where the Australian army is making its own attempt to arrange proper war graves, but deeper into a country that is still embroiled in war, with Greece. He finds unlikely allies in Hasan and the major’s old comrade Jemal (Cem Yilmaz), and comfort in the form of his Constantinople landlady, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), whose husband died in the war, and whose young son Connor befriends.
The script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios is based on a true story, about “the only father who came looking.” But while the film’s momentum is driven by Connor’s obstinate search for his sons’ bodies (with the British Army, then the Greeks providing dramatic obstacles), its chief interest resides in a nuanced account of the Turkish experience – whether Hasan’s involvement with the nationalists, or the social pressure on the widowed Ayshe to marry her brother-in-law.
This rare, wholly commendable element of the film underscores its anti-war message, as does the parallel drawn between the Australian father in search of his sons (and reproaching himself for waving them off to war in the first place) and the Turkish boy in need of a father figure.
On screen, Crowe has rarely been more moving; though that’s hardly surprising. What is new is how quietly competent he is behind the camera. The bubbling romance between Connor and Ayshe may be a bit hackneyed, and there are some standard first-timer tics – too many flashbacks, too much slow motion. But the action moves along at a good lick, he gives every performer ample opportunity to shine, and generally demonstrates amiable storytelling chops.
One flashback scene that works a treat sees Connor galloping to the rescue of his younger sons as a dust storm engulfs them, before huddling under a blanket and coaxing them to calm. Here Crowe combines visual panache with understated emotion – and not for the first time will bring a huge lump to the throat.
“The Water Diviner” opens April 24.