By Elias Savada.
Wow! I didn’t know (insert actor’s name here) could direct! Actually I should clarify that. Can said actor direct a film that is (a) something that his or her fans will want to see whether or not he or she is in it, and/or (b) a well done, worthy effort? There’s probably a few other variables that can be tossed in here, but let’s keep it simple.
In the merry world of Hollywood (or, in this case, Australia and the U.S.A., with a side of Turkey), it’s multi-tasking Russell Crowe’s turn to prove to his public that an Oscar-winning Best Actor (2000’s Gladiator, but also nominated for 1999’s The Insider and 2001’s A Beautiful Mind) can impress if he’s also in charge behind the camera. There have been some noteworthy films from the likes of actor-directors Mel Gibson, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, and Angelina Jolie (among others, stretching way back to Charlie Chaplin). I think the more unique situation here is that Crowe collected his first acting statue before deciding to helm a film. Gibson has never been nominated for an Academy Award in an acting category. Eastwood was directing for two decades before his first acting nomination (1992’s Unforgiven, losing to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, but still winning Best Picture and Best Director). Clooney and Jolie appear to best fit Crowe’s model. Ten years ago he won a supporting actor trophy for Syriana while coming up an also-ran on Oscar night for directing and writing Good Night, and Good Luck, his first film as a director. Jolie, garnered top supporting actress honors for her role in Girl, Interrupted (1999) before helming her first feature in 2011 (In the Land of Blood and Honey). It was Jolie’s second feature, last year’s Unbroken (three lesser Oscar noms), that hovered in the back of my mind after watching Crowe’s debut. Two grand war stories, beautiful to watch, with incredibly talented actors. Both, too, skillfully done, but just missing that bigger-than-life emotional spark to make them truly extraordinary cinema memories.
Russell Crowe’s command as a debut director may not be as strong as Clooney’s was, but The Water Diviner, which premiered Down Under last Christmas and arrives in the States this week, is a very sincere, inspired-by-true-events effort filled with compassionate performances. Its few problems are anchored in a too expansive screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios (both also executive producers). It did win three Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, including Best Picture. Crowe received a nomination for his lead performance, but nothing for directing.
It’s a wide screen (some theaters are showing it in IMAX), sprawling epic with interesting locales (well dressed by production designer Christopher Kennedy), some stunning visuals, thanks to the Oscar-winning director of photography Andrew Lesnie (2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), and a truly absorbing, even intimate, story. It’s one Crowe, and every Australian, is familiar with – the battle of Gallipoli during World War I in which over 10,000 members of the original fighting unit known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) died in a losing campaign against the Turks (later victorious). It has remained such a strong memory that April 25th is celebrated as ANZAC Day, commemorating all of Australia and New Zealand’s military casualties and veterans. A small degree of separation for Crowe on this subject is that he was directed by Peter Weir in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), and that Weir directed the magnificent Gallipoli a third of a century ago.
Crowe stars here as Joshua Connor, a hard-working farmer in North Western Victoria with low-key mystic abilities for finding water in arid locales. He loves Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) and dotes on their three sons. When the First World War summons the lads to the Gallipoli battle line (the flashback footage is quite horrifying as it peels away the teary-eyed truth behind the grim actions on the battlefield), it is the war’s aftermath that is the core of the film. (The movie was rated R for war violence, including some disturbing images.) Five years have passed since the boys’ presumed deaths. Their mother, maddened and saddened by her loss, finds fatal solace in a local pond. Left alone, the faith-shattered Joshua remains true to an oath to his dead wife, that he will brings his boys home. It helps that he divines that his boys can be found – and that only he can find them.
The action shifts to the war’s scarred earth, with the Graves Registration Unit attempting to identify the too-many skeletal remains at Gallipoli. Connor travels to Istanbul, where he is “befriended” by the 10-year-old Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), a mischievously affectionate child with an exotically stunning mother, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko). She’s a hotel owner hoping for the return of her husband, also lost in the Gallipoli action. Then Connor maneuvers around the occupation forces’ bureaucracy to arrive unannounced and unwelcomed among the soldiers lead by Lt. Colonel Hughes (Jai Courtney) and being assisted by Turkish nationalists Major Hasan Bay (Yilmaz Erdoǧan) and his faithful sidekick Sgt. Jemal (Cem Yilmaz). Both are still dedicated to their country’s independence, yet now mellowed from their days of (ir)responsibility for the deaths of 70,000 Turkish soldiers. Bay and Connor form a cross-cultural bond that is one of the more attractive relationships in the film.
The movie switches between Connor’s search around the Turkish countryside – with Bay and Jemal, as resolute in their belief for the country’s freedom as is the Australian human diviner’s instincts are about his lost family – and the romantic yearnings between Connor and Ayshe. Not to belittle her performance, but the side story featured her husband’s brother Omer (and his plans to marry his dead brother’s wife) could have been compressed or eliminated. In fact, the ogling between her and Connor is a bit distracting in the end.
There’s plenty to admire in The Water Diviner, for its grim notions of war and the compassion surrounding a father’s search for his family. Notwithstanding the distractions of the Connor-Ayshe romance, Crowe has made an old-fashioned film that is a damn good start to his directing career.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.