By Chris Maltby
The battle over the island of Gallipoli during World War I rests heavy on the consciousness of two cultures. The Ottoman forces, though winning a decisive victory against the Allies, holding the island while their forces retreated, would go on to eventually cede Gallipoli at the conclusion of the war. For the ANZAC forces of Australia and New Zealand, it was a baptism of fire leading to the fierce and endemic sense of independence and identity both those nations share today. Russell Crowe's directorial debut The Water Diviner frames itself against this architecture of uncertainty and change, and while the film begins with great promise, it eventually sags under the weight of maudlin unoriginality.
The film opens with an interesting sleight of hand; as an officer dresses and prepares for battle the western viewer typically assumes that they are witnessing the preparations of someone fighting on the more culturally recognizable side. When it is revealed that we are watching Yilmaz Erdogan's stoic Maj. Hasan prepare for what seems to be a decisive battle, in the closing days of Gallipoli, it momentarily flips expectations on their heads, allowing the audience to suppose for a moment that they will see something different than expected, that the film may yield a more interesting and contrary perspective than was expected.
That the film begins so promisingly before quickly devolving into the type of clichéd and predictable stuffing that comprises 90% of the typical Hollywood pap is depressing, if unsurprising. Crowe himself plays Joshua Connor, the titular water seeker, appearing for the first time in a machismo-heavy, sweaty, solo dig for an underground aquifer. Shortly, we are introduced to his shell-shocked wife, still mourning the loss of their three adult sons who died in the Battle of Gallipoli, now four years past. Her character exists as barely a (slightly shrill note, before she is dispatched by a self-administered overdose of water almost immediately, thereby indicating the only things that seem to motivate Crowes character. This will also be everything you need to know in regards to motivation and characterization. In no short order Connor has attended to the task of burying his wife and is off to Turkey to find and bury the bodies of his sons, and the film has settled into an unsurprising and well-worn path it seems intent on completing. Crowe plays Connor as a slightly portly Indiana Jones, with a hint of swashbuckle and a knack for fisticuffs, off on an adventure in far off lands. At one point he even rides a white horse to the rescue, with absolutely zero sense of irony or awareness.
What is surprising is that Crowe, an industry veteran of countless years and even more productions could spend so much time in the business and produce something so emotionally tone deaf and inauthentic. The death of both his wife and three sons seems to register with the character only fleetingly, before becoming something of a generally advertised standard for why he's doing what he's doing. Moments that should resonate emotionally alternately fall flat or grossly overplay their hands. This overall sense of inauthenticity culminates in a musical scene midway through the film that feels less like an organic moment than something recorded for release on a Starbucks exclusive Putumayo CD.
The tone of the film becomes increasingly dour, determinedly morose and grim, even as the script attempts to inoculate the audience against the advancing misery with a forced love story clumsily inserted into the narrative and personified by a uncomfortably cast Olga Kurylenko as a single mother who runs a hotel. It's up to each viewer to decide, independently, which they find more awkward; the lack of chemistry between Kurylenko and Crowe or the ignorant racial blindness that led to her bizarre casting as a Turkish widow.
This subtle fishing for a substitute wife and son crescendos in a late night dinner between Kurylenko and Crowe that is set in a room with enough lit candles to burn Istanbul to the ground. However, the scene is visually sumptuous, and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie's work throughout the film is phenomenal. What the film lacks in narrative substance is inversely proportionate to how visually sumptuous it is. Lesnie imbues the film with golden hues and amber tones, incorporating bountiful vistas with a gorgeous palette that is constantly arresting and almost decadently rich. Through Lesnie's camera, western Australia is alive with sunsets of burnt umber and rolling ochre plains; his Istanbul is a riot of color that would make Tarsem blush.
By the time the film's third act rolls around the audience should be able to predict with unerring certainty the ultimate outcome of the film, which while visually bountiful, is an ultimately hollow vehicle seemingly executed to appease it's directors notoriously self indulgent ego stroking.
Chris Maltby is an NYC based street walkin' cheetah with a heart full of napalm.