War epics are some of the oldest and most enduring stories we tell, dating back at least to “The Iliad” and “The Mahabharata.” But it’s the relatively rare anti-war epic that feels more urgent and necessary.
Russell Crowe makes his narrative directorial debut with an example of the latter genre in “The Water Diviner,” which tied for Best Film at the Australian Oscars earlier this year with “The Babadook.” An impressively ambitious and intelligent action-drama, “The Water Diviner” is nothing short of a search for new kinds of heroes and legends about war and for what it means to be a man.
Crowe directs himself as Connor, an Australian farmer who has lost his three sons, two of them teenagers, to World War I. It would be difficult to find landscapes more sublime than the desert outback during sunset or the sunny Aegean seashore at dawn, especially as they’re reverently captured here, but war has made those locales hell on earth. In one of the film’s most wrenching scenes, dying soldiers — British invaders and Turkish defenders alike — scattered across a hill scarred with trenches wail in a chorus at night after a decisive battle, their last gasps coming out in moans and howls. Just a few years later, those men are nothing more than a pile of skulls and scattered bones, utterly indistinguishable from the remains of their enemies.
After the death of his heartbroken wife (Jacqueline McKenzie), Connor travels to that same Turkish frontline to recover his son’s bodies and lay them beside their mother. It’s unclear why Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios’s screenplay gives Connor the titular power of water divination, or knowing where to dig for wells; except for a charming but dispensable early sequence in which he digs several feet into the dry dirt of the Outback and hits an underground spring, his rare ability only comes in handy when he somehow finds two of his boys’ bodies among thousands in a bit of magical realism that jars against the rest of the film.
Connor’s eldest son, however, was taken prisoner by Turkish troops, and thus begins a journey by ship, train, and horseback in search of the young man. When Connor first arrives in Istanbul from Australia, he looks like Indiana Jones in funereal garb, chasing a mischievous little boy (Dylan Georgiades) who stole his suitcase through a busy bazaar. Gearing for action after the discovery of Connor’s possibly surviving son, the picture, too, shrugs off much of the sorrow that suffuses its first half to embrace swashbuckling heroics. The turn to convention diminishes “The Water Diviner” only somewhat, mostly because of a shoehorned romance between Connor and the mother of the tiny thief, an ill-treated young widow soon to be forced into an unwanted second marriage (an overacting Olga Kurylenko, miscast here for a multitude of reasons).
Enjoying much better chemistry with Crowe is the Turkish actor Yilmaz Erdogan, playing a world-weary general forced to watch his country, the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire, invaded and carved up by European powers. “Don’t invade a country when you don’t know where it is,” he chides, summing up the Cliff Notes to the film. His moral decency, displayed in the aid he offers Connor in the latter’s search for his son, sparks the Australian farmer’s realization of his small contributions to the British colonial project, a guilty epiphany that doesn’t make him love his foolhardy children any less. (It’s a sad reflection of the state of middlebrow cinema to give a film credit just for holding two opposing thoughts at the same time, but here we are.) When Connor finally learns how his younger sons died, it’s a devastating truth about just how grim and terrible the best thing you can do for your fellow soldier on the battlefield can be.
Crowe’s beauty-seeking, but exoticizing camera is slightly outmatched by his performance, which anchors the film with regret tinged with hope. But what continues to haunt after the credits finish rolling are the film’s explorations of the trauma of life after war: The brutally quick political shifts, the lingering shame of committing vicious and dishonorable acts, and the bitter knowledge that there’s no such thing as lasting peace.