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Non-Review Review: The Water Diviner

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

The Water Diviner is a solid directorial début for actor Russell Crowe, a well-intentioned and relatively under-explored story that occasionally wanders into clumsy melodrama.

Crowe works both in front and behind the camera, directing himself as a father who embarks on a journey across the world to bring his lost sons home. Set in the wake of the First World War, The Water Diviner charts Joshua Connor’s effort to recover the remains his three sons who perished in the battle for Gallipoli. Travelling from the Australia to Turkey, Connor finds himself fighting against bureaucracy and civil strife as he tries to keep the promise to bring his children back to home soil.

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It is a fascinating a compelling story. Crowe is a reliable leading man, imbuing Connor with a sense of humanity and relatability that helps to anchor a somewhat spotty screenplay. Crowe seems to trust his cast a great deal, affording them room to work and never rushing them along. However, he also seems somewhat sceptical of the audience. The Water Diviner is packed with repetitive flashbacks and awkward montages designed to impart information that the audience has already grasped.

The result is a rather uneven film. Much like its title character, it seems like The Water Diviner works best when it trusts its instincts; not when it tries to second-guess itself.

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The First World War is perhaps frequently overshadowed by the Second World War. The centenary of the conflict occurred rather recently, prompting a surge in interest and discussion, but the First World War often feels overlooked. In many ways, the conflict could be seen as a point of transition – from the wars of attrition fought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the more industrial conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It was a conflict on a whole new scale for mankind.

Most of the plot of The Water Diviner is driven by the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. That small island was home to one of the most pitched battles of the entire war, with massive casualties on both sides. When Connor arrives at the island, it is described as “one big grave.” Bones litter the countryside, with the remains of Turkish soldiers stacked into piles as Allied soldiers attempt to recognise their own remains. It is a harrowing effort. The work of identifying the dead would continue from 1919 through to 1924. It lasted longer than the conflict itself.

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The Water Diviner is a movie interested in the legacy of conflict. The movie joins Joshua Connor in the aftermath of the war, four years after he received word of the death of his children on that island. Travelling to Turkey, Connor finds himself coming into contact with those profoundly affected by the Great War. Ayshe is a widow who lost her husband during the fighting. Major Hasan is the officer who led the assault that led to the reported death of the three Connor boys. Even Turkey itself finds itself embroiled in a continuing conflict with Greece.

The Water Diviner has some interesting ideas to propose about hope and faith, violence and conflict. These are all fairly familiar sentiments, with Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight’s script suggesting that conflict tends to breed more conflict. (“It is the same war,” Hasan assures Connor when discussing the war between Greece and Turkey.) Similarly, it suggests that understanding and sympathy are the key to reconciliation. Connor finds himself spending time with the man responsible for the death of his children; he comes to understand and appreciate Turkey’s history.

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These are big ideas, and The Water Diviner is not quite as nuanced or as sophisticated as it needs to be. For all that Connor comes to learn that the Turkish army was comprised of people no different than his own children, The Water Diviner has no qualms in portraying the Greeks as stock war movie villains. (Indeed, the most prominent Greek character comes with some handy scarring on his face to help identify him as evil.) The Greek army are not humanised, instead providing the film with a suitably tense climax.

At the same time, Crowe is a director who doesn’t seem to completely trust his audience. The best moments in The Water Diviner come when he allows the cast to convey information and emotion through dialogue or action. Crowe works quite well with young actor Dylan Georgiades and veteran performer Yılmaz Erdoğan. However, Crowe leans a little too heavily on David Hirschfelder’s score, relying on montages that play out to a saccharine soundtrack to help sell big emotional moments. (Most notably a romantic dinner or some playful splashing.)

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Similarly, the movie keeps cutting back to the horrors of Gallipoli, past the point where it feels redundant. Fields of bone are more harrowing that quick shots of soldiers charging across the field. There is one extended flashback to Gallipoli that manages to underscore the horrors quite thoroughly. However, there are several quick flashes which are jarring and discordant. There is a sense that The Water Diviner never quite appreciates that less can sometimes be more – that there is a pleasant balance to be found between drought and flood.

Still, The Water Diviner is not a bad film. Crowe feels quite comfortable for most of the runtime. Crowe’s classic Hollywood style lends itself to the movie’s early twentieth century aesthetic. Crowe is very much a traditional matinee leading man – the kind of star who can sell old-world charm without breaking a sweat. Watching the actor chase a young kid through the streets of Istanbul in an effort to reclaim a misplaced suitcase is incredibly charming – reminding the audience why he was such a great fit in movies like L.A. Confidential or 3:10 to Yuma.

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The Water Diviner is not quite an auspicious debut, but it is a solid film with an interesting subject. The execution might be a little haphazard and clumsy in places, underestimating the audience and overselling its big moments, but there is an earnestness to the film that helps account for some of that.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 2

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