In cinema, there is a history of prominent actors eventually attempting to direct. Sometimes the results work and sometimes they don’t. Other times, it can be hit and miss within the same film. Russell Crowe stepped up a few years ago and decided to have a go. How did he do?
The Water Diviner (2014) is a fictional piece that follows Joshua Connor (Crowe), who lives on an outback homestead after World War 1. He spends time searching for water using divining rods. When not engaging in this, he and his wife (Jacqueline McKenzie) live in mournful solitude. The reason being their three sons Arthur (Jack Patterson, later Ryan Corr), Henry (Ben Norris/Ben O’Toole) and Edward (Aidan Smith/James Fraser) are dead. More correctly, they were killed at Gallipoli in 1915. The crushing weight of this loss is movingly acted. These few scenes comprise only the opening of the movie but are so well done in each department, they could almost have been expanded into the essential focus of the film. Instead, they provide a motivational springboard for Connor to embark on a journey to Turkey, where most of the action occurs.
His lone mission is to retrieve the bodies of his sons by subverting the military bureaucracy in charge of the battlefield sites. This is something he implausibly achieves in rapid time. At this point you realise there are conflicting elements to the action, each tearing in opposite directions. On the one hand is a gentle, endearing dimension through which Connor quietly appeals to the fundamental goodwill of his interlocutors. On the other, is the machismo by which he hires a boat, jumps manfully into the water and stubbornly appears on the beach of Gallipoli demanding to see his sons. Major Hasan, the Turkish officer in charge of the scene (Yilmaz Erdogan [no relation to the President]) says “Are they all this stubborn?” with Hughes (Jai Courtney) the Allied officer in charge replying “He’s the only father who came looking”. The acting and directing here is understated and you can imagine such lines being delivered really badly in an 1980s’ muscle actioner. However, it still seems unintentionally insulting to the thousands of parents who didn’t have the resources, time or inclination to make the trip. In short, nobody else had the balls, so he deserves special attention?!
Once on the battlefield, Connor tries to find his boys. This is portrayed well through flashbacks. We see the sons fighting and this is succinct and commendably directed. The handling of the fighting stands up well alongside predecessors such as Gallipoli (1981), 1915 (1982) or the TV series ANZACS (1985). There is a minor red herring regarding the death of one son set up at this point, the pay off for which is subtly yet movingly established later. This section could have seen a neat wrapping up of the narrative, but things don’t go smoothly for Connor. He ends here by obtaining (courtesy of Hasan) an extra piece of information which is just enough to keep his quest for the dead, alive.
From this point the tightly and mostly reasonably plotted story goes off in another direction. Connor forms a friendship with Hasan and the two interact in a sympathetic way. The local will help the outsider in achieving his quest. The creative intention was probably a reasonable one. It is a symbolic way for former adversaries to find common ground and a common humanity. So far as it stays that way, its sort of alright. Unfortunately the line is crossed from simply establishing personal empathy between individual protagonists based on reconciliation about the past, to adopting a political position about the post-war period. Hasan is a nationalist and his attempt to aid the cause of Mustafa Kemal (who of course had been at Gallipolli) drives him to take on Greek invaders. These points are so simplistically laid out it verges on cringe-worthy Orientalism. They exist in part for Rusty Crowe to have his character engage in more macho engagement, riding horses, dashing about avoiding shell fire and even using a cricket bat as a weapon!
The most egregious dimension to all this is the fact that contemporaneously with the ANZACs’ withdrawl from Gallipoli, the Turks began a genocide of 1.5 million Armenians. This is not mentioned, instead we see the Greeks as evil and the nationalist goal as worthy. Its simplistic, poor history and doesn’t serve the story well. You could argue that mentioning the Armenian genocide was not organically justifiable in the story but it could surely have been included in some way if the makers wanted to. Omission and selection of subjects carries implications. This movie was a joint Australian/Turkish production and you can’t help thinking the underlying philosophy of the current regime in Ankara seeped into what ended up on the screen.
One of the sub-plots in The Water Diviner is a melodramatic one concerning a female hotelier widow named Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), her cute-as-a-button son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) and Omer (Steve Bastomi) a misogynistic uncle with designs on Ayshe. That’s probably enough in itself to give you an idea of what happens when Connor stays as a guest. The acting and directing in this section is fine enough but its all just a bit too underdeveloped, predictable and lacking in credibility. Its function seems to be to add to the gentle, cuddly side of the ledger in additional support of the idea of reconciliation and Connor as more than a simple testosterone-driven adventurer. Crowe the actor can carry it off, but its rudimentary nature sinks his efforts.
To sum up, Crowe’s passion project is a mixed bag. His duality as an actor who can be both heroic in a classic mode and warmly sympathetic is employed to effect here yet this undercuts the overall quality of the story content. He is competent with a camera, especially in the war scenes and the narrative is propulsive enough but particularly in the second half, serves a political position that is unsupportable.