Academy Award winner Russell Crowe ("Gladiator") makes his directorial debut on "The Water Diviner," an epic and inspiring tale of one man's life-changing journey of discovery.
Crowe also stars in the film as Australian farmer Joshua Connor, who, in 1919, goes in search of his three missing sons, last known to have fought against the Turks in the bloody Battle of Gallipoli. Arriving in Istanbul, he is thrust into a vastly different world, where he encounters others who have suffered their own losses in the conflict: Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), a strikingly beautiful but guarded hotelier raising a child alone; her young, spirited son, Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), who finds a friend in Connor; and Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdo?an), a Turkish officer who fought against Connor's boys and who may be this father's only hope. With seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his path, Connor must travel across the battle-scarred Turkish landscape to find the truth…and his own peace.
"Hope is a necessity where I come from."
When an actor makes the leap to directing feature films the tendency is to view their output with a very skeptical eye. On the one hand you want to be forgiving because it's their first time behind the camera, but on the other hand you don't want to cut them any slack simply because they're an actor. Some actors and actresses have made decent transitions to working behind the camera, folks like George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Elizabeth Banks come to mind. When Russell Crowe announced that his first film as a director would star himself as a father searching for his sons after World War I, it's natural to worry the actor may be taking on a project to wax his own ego. Thankfully 'The Water Diviner' turns out to be a strong outing for Crowe and shows the man has some potential behind the camera.
The battle of Gallipoli was a slaughter. Both Australian and Turkish forces lost tens of thousands of men all for a little patch of dirt. After the war was finished and the Turks find themselves on the losing side of the war, a great effort was made by the Australian army to put names to the masses of dead soldiers. Heading up this effort is Lt. Colonel Hughes (Jai Courtney). As a soldier who fought on the craggily landscape of Gallipoli or Çanakkale as it is known to the Turkish forces, Hughes is best suited for the task - but he needs help from Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan). Hasan lead the Turkish forces and had intimate knowledge of the Australian battalion positions and where dead soldiers are likely located. The two men lost friends in this terrible battle and together they find common ground with their mutual respect for the dead.
Meanwhile in Australia, Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe) does what he can to maintain his farm. Since his land can see little to no meaningful rainfall for years on end, he has to dig wells to find enough water for his cattle. As a Water Diviner, he has a knack for finding water that is hidden deep below the surface. While he doesn't always find water, he gets what he needs to support his farm. If only that was enough. After a long hard day's work out in the blazing hot sun, he returns home to his distraught wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie). After four years, the woman hasn't been able to move past the deaths of their three sons on the battlefield of Gallipoli. Eliza blames Joshua for not only failing to stop their boys from going to war, but also for failing to bring them home for a proper burial.
When Eliza succumbs to her unending grief and takes her own life, Joshua becomes determined to find the remains of his boys. Upon his arrival in Turkey, Joshua discovers that his journey is to be an uphill climb. Not only will he have to navigate bureaucratic red tape that prevents civilians from entering battle fields, but he's also going to have to bare the brunt of a country whose citizens are understandably hostile towards people who speak English - in particular Australians and the English. Staying in a local hotel run by a widow named Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), Joshua begins to understand the cultural divide that separates them. Because both have lost loved ones, Ayshe and her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) help put Joshua onto the right path to enter Gallipoli so that he might find his sons and finally lay them to rest. But Gallipoli will be just one part of Joshua's physical and emotional journey as he not only seeks to find peace for the souls of his children, but find the faith withinin himself and God that he abandoned the day he learned of his son's deaths.
'The Water Diviner' is one of those movies that may have bitten off a bit more than it can adequately chew, but it does more right than it gets wrong. Helping this movie greatly is an ever present sense of hope. Even when the chips are down and things are at their darkest for Joshua, you want him to succeed in his goals - even if all that means is he learns bad news, at least the man would know the truth and his suffering would be at an end. As a war film it's a tough ride in many places. Thankfully the depictions of war wounds and casualties aren't as graphic or gratuitous as they could be, but these scenes of soldiers being cut down by machine gun fire, getting caught on barbed wire, or suffering while waiting for medical aid pack quite an emotional punch. If the film has a problem spot it's with a rather contrived and obvious love interest plot between Joshua and Ayshe. When this aspect of the story is given so much time in the second act, the film's primary story suffers. As a result, the happenings of the third act feel forced, underdeveloped and don't quite have the emotional resonance they should.
Now by this point you're probably wondering how Crowe does behind the camera. As we've all seen the man can be a force to be reckoned with when he's taking the lead in a film, as a director he has a sure hand with a nice touch for subtlety. He may be a bit clunky with some of the softer romantic themes, but when he's directing a scene between two men who have a mutual respect for each other, Crowe proves he has a deft touch and knows how to just let the actors do their jobs. He also seems to have been inspired by two of his best directors, borrowing the visual stylings of Ridley Scott while picking up some of the character interaction simplicities of Ron Howard. As a first time director I'll give the man a lot of credit for being able to manage a film of this scope on a rather slim budget. He packs a visual punch while showing some emotional tenderness that is an admirable effort.
My primary issue with 'The Water Diviner' is the second act slow down that I'd mentioned previously. This is one of those cases where you can practically see someone in a backroom someplace when this script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios was being worked on and rewritten whispering the ideas of a more "Hollywood" happy ending romantic storyline thread. For this film it just didn't need to be there and it really does bog the movie down for longer than it should. I don't mind a movie having a happy ending, I don't like being depressed when I leave a theater or eject a disc from my player, but at the same time I like things to feel genuine. There was a way to leave this film happily without the forced romantics as the setup for this conclusion - while nice - felt a bit fake.
Performances are the key factors here. While Russell Crowe's Joshua is the lead character, Crowe thankfully doesn't play the part like he's the most important man in the room. He shows a humble, softer side that harkens back to his days on 'Cinderella Man.' Olga Kurylenko continues to do her best with the material she's given. Thankfully she wasn't hired just to be a pretty face and actually plays a strong woman who wants to raise her son well while also being racked with the grief of her own losses. The real standout for me was Yilmaz Erdogan as Major Hasan. The man says more with his eyes and simple gestures than the lines that are given to him and he brings a lot of weight to the film. Also impressive was Jai Courtney as Hughes. I've never been much of a fan of his work as he usually feels bland and unimpressive, but here Courtney brought a very welcome sensitivity to the role and delivered a solid performance.
As a whole 'The Water Diviner' may not be a cinematic feast, but it proves to be worth the hour and fifty minute run time. As a better than average war drama, it gives me a nice little bit of hope that Russell Crowe has something to offer the world as a director. I honestly hope he doesn't take too long to find his next project behind the camera because I want to see him grow and improve as a storyteller the same way we've already seen him chart a similar path as an actor. It may not be the best film ever made, but 'The Water Diviner' is a fine piece of entertainment and worth a watch at least once.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Water Diviner' arrives on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. pressed on a BD50 disc and housed in a standard eco-friendly case. The disc opens to a trailer for the upcoming theatrical release of 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' before arriving to the main menu. Also included with the disc is an Ultraviolet HD Digital Copy code.
On one hand 'The Water Diviner' is a visual delight, on the other hand there are some slight problem spots that keep this transfer from earning a full five star grade. For the most part the image quality for this 2.40:1 1080p transfer is knock it out of the park outstanding. Detail levels are fantastic and offer a great deal of clarity to appreciate. Colors are warm and sumptuous enjoying wonderful golden hues while also allowing for plenty of primary color presence. Flesh tones appear spot on. Likewise black levels and shadows are over all very strong and allow for a fantastic sense of three dimensional depth. Troubles pop up during the night shoots of the Gallipoli battle. As this movie was shot digitally, there is a bit of video noise through these darker scenes. While I'm sure some of this is intensional to add a sense of grit and urgency to the scenes, however the effect can look a bit like a swarm of insects were attacking the screen. Thankfully this noisy effect doesn't detract from the detail levels or the sense of depth of the image, but it keeps blacks from being truly inky during these sequences. Over all this is a fine and serviceable transfer, however, this movie is only occupying 33gigs of space on this 50gig disc - I wonder how much better the image could be if it had been allowed to use all of the space at its disposal.
'The Water Diviner' wins big with this strong and robust English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track. Even as a war film, the fast majority of the movie is comprised of quiet contemplative dialogue moments. Thankfully the majority of the dialogue keeps to the center channels and is never difficult to hear - even during more bombastic thundering scenes. Imaging is a real treat for this track as there is plenty of channel movement for sound effects to occupy. The audio keeps to the midranges for the most part but the lower registers have plenty of presence, especially during the combat sequences allowing for some real power to come from cannon blasts and bursts of gunfire. Levels are well balanced as this movie can go from quiet to booming with little to no warning. There aren't any signs of any kind of distortion or undesirable audio artifacts making this a very pleasing and resonate track to enjoy.
The Making of The Water Diviner: (HD 21:48) Russell Crowe narrates and navigates this very promotional-feeling behind the scenes piece. This feels less like something designed as a Blu-ray or DVD extra features but rather as a piece of promotional material to hype up the film ahead of a theatrical release.
The Battle of Gallipoli: (HD 7:52) This is a nice interview with Russell Crowe about the historic battle, it would have been great if this had been a bit more comprehensive and brought in some historians, but as it is it's still pretty decent.
When Russell Crowe announced he was going to be stepping behind the camera for the first time I was curious to see what the results would be as he's routinely worked with some of the best directors in the business. 'The Water Diviner' is a fine first outing for the actor as a director. It's a solid effort that falls into some small story pitfalls, but otherwise is a very entertaining drama that captures an emotional core. The audio and video presentation for this Blu-ray release is very good. The extras leave something to be desired, but they're informative. Over all I'm calling 'The Water Diviner' as recommended since I'm very likely to revisit this film a couple more times. If you missed this one while it was in theaters, it's certainly worth a watch.