The Water Diviner: Russell Crowe Goes to Turkey

The new World War I historical drama is an interesting directorial debut for Crowe, but misses the mark where it matters most.

By Robert Moeller Published on April 29, 2015

Many great film actors think that they have the chops to direct great films of their own. Some — Ben Affleck, most recently and notably — discover that they are better directors and story-tellers than Silver Screen thespians. Others — Angelina Jolie comes to mind — quickly learn that there are a handful of directors they themselves want to work with for a very good reason.

In his maiden voyage at the helm of a motion picture, The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe does an admirable job at navigating the audience through his ambitious World War I drama, but misses the mark on some key moral distinctions and historical realities.

The Water Diviner is the tale of an Australian father (Crowe) whose three young sons enlist in the military and are shipped off to Turkey to fight in the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-1916. When all three boys fail to return home, and with ambiguity surrounding their demise on the vicious battlefield, Crowe decides to travel to the heart of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in hopes of bringing his sons’ remains back to their native soil. Along the way, Crowe learns lessons about the cultural differences that divide and the familial ties that bind.

 

The acting in The Water Diviner is quite strong, led by Crowe himself. The rest of the cast is comprised of relatively unknown commodities, but there isn’t a weak link among them. Most importantly, you actually care about the characters you are watching. This is a rare feat these days.

Be warned: This is not a film for kids and there are plenty of war and action violence, some of which is intense enough to garner the “R” rating. But the usual culprits of gratuitous nudity, sensuality and language play no role in The Water Diviner. The graphic battlefield depictions serve the story and connect the viewer emotionally in ways that bloodless “war montage” scenes simply cannot.

While the movie is solid, so far as movies go, the messaging, worldview and historical interpretation are not.

Crowe’s portrayal of a grieving father was convincing, but the words his character uses to describe his disillusionment with war and service to country, while not absolutely anachronistic, somehow did feel much more like something you would hear in 2015 than 1915.

He talked of failing his sons by allowing them to buy into the “for God and country” patriotism that has led many men into battle since battles first began. The pervasive sentiment throughout the film is that war is an utterly pointless endeavor for which all nations are equally culpable. There is not even the slightest hint that some parents of those who fell at Gallipoli might have been proud of their brave boys. There is no hint for the viewer that this is even an emotional option.

Along those same lines, Crowe spends much of the film giving us a look at what life is like for the families of soldiers from “the other side” in a war against the Western, Christian powers. This is an interesting, laudable goal for a moviemaker, but Crowe remains unwilling to take off the kid gloves when dealing with the Turkish characters. The violence of the Turkish military is excusable because “we invaded your land.” The mistreatment of women in a Muslim society — even direct physical abuse — is explained away as a cultural difference that we wouldn’t understand.

Much has also been made in recent weeks about the fact that there is no mention of the Armenian Genocide in the film, an event that was being perpetrated by the Turks at the exact same time that the lead character’s sons were dying on the beaches of Gallipoli.

Perhaps this is just an artistic choice that Crowe left out since it did not directly pertain to the story he was trying to tell. But given the film’s general message, we might guess thatperhaps the Armenian Genocide is a story Crowe didn’t want to tell. It’s not as if Crowe avoids moralizing in the film altogether. The Water Diviner offers multiple shots fired across the bows of organized religion, and the Western military powers, and goes to some lengths to emphasize the supposed ignorance and bias we have toward Muslims — all this in a film released on the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. So it’s hardly unfair to point out not just the story he chose to tell, but also the story he chose not to tell.

 

The Water Diviner is a solid “B” flick, but maybe wait for Netflix on this one.

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