War wounds

No, this film probably isn’t drought-friendly.

No, this film probably isn’t drought-friendly.

Rated 4.0

Russell Crowe turns director with The Water Diviner, in which he plays Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer in 1919. We first see him employing the talent that lends the movie its title, pacing the yellow hills of his South Australia property, dowsing wires wavering in his fists. When they cross, he stops and digs. At last, with the rim of the hole well over his head, he strikes water, luxuriating in it before climbing out. Connor is a man who knows where to do what must be done, and how to do it himself.

Returning home, Connor finds his wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) dreamily cleaning a shoe. “Arthur has worn through the toe of his boot,” she says. “I don’t know how he does it.” She tells him the boys are all in bed waiting for him to read them to sleep. Pained, he tries to beg off, but she insists. Sighing, he goes to his sons’ room and reads from The Arabian Nights—to an audience of three empty beds. The boys are all gone, lost in 1915 in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of the Great War.

Grief has unhinged Eliza, and it drives her to suicide, after bitterly reproaching Connor (“You can find water but you can’t find your own sons!”). At her grave, he promises her that somehow he’ll find their three sons and bring them home to rest beside her.

This is what brings Connor to Istanbul in the shattered Ottoman Empire, where the Turkish locals seethe under Britain’s postwar occupation, and where the British Army is undertaking the grisly chore of uncovering the dead, identifying them where possible, and interring them in military cemeteries on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Connor is denied access to the peninsula, but he’s not easily turned aside once his mind is made up.

In his self-imposed mission, Connor finds unexpected allies, even friends, along the way. He stays at a small hotel owned by Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), a Turkish woman whose husband, like Connor’s sons, lies among the unknown corpses on Gallipoli. At first her bitterness makes her cold and hostile, but as days wear on she responds to Connor’s obvious decency and, in her way, empathizes with his loss. Her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades, in an engaging performance) befriends Connor, reviving the man’s withered paternal instincts. And most curious of all, he forms a wary, respectful bond with Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), a commander on the Ottoman side in the Gallipoli campaign, now reluctantly cooperating with the British in their work of finding and identifying the dead.

Through all this, Connor’s peculiar sixth sense, which once helped him to find water in the desert of South Australia, somehow, in ways he only dimly understands, guides him in his anguished quest for the remains of his three sons.

The Water Diviner was written by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, and the script is a sometimes heady mix of epic events and intimate emotions, punctuated by brief but savage battle sceneseither experienced, remembered, imagined or psychically sensedas brutal and indelible as anything since Saving Private Ryan. Knight and Anastasios juggle time and place expertly, but in a way that might easily flummox a fledgling director, especially one who’s starring in the movie himself. So it’s a relief to see the confidence with which Crowe drives the movie.

Like Connor luxuriating in the water of the well he has dug, Crowe similarly basks in the lush beauty of Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography, while Lesnie proves that his work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy was no fluke. But the movie never slides into an album of travel postcards; Knight and Anastasios keep the plot percolating with turns that shouldn’t be spoiled here. And in its tranquil moments, Crowe doesn’t allow the scenery or the exotic Turkish locations to upstage the characters. Even in a visit to an exquisitely beautiful Byzantine mosque, the focus remains on Connor and his young guide Orhan. And Crowe’s scenes with Kurylenko (in her way as exquisite as that mosque) gently pulse with the decorous, tentative rhythms of courtship between damaged souls.

The Water Diviner is an old-fashioned movie in the best sense of the term, directed by Crowe with a (perhaps surprisingly) delicate and generous touch.