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With: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Jai Courtney, Ryan Corr, Ben O'Toole, James Fraser, Steve Bastoni, Dylan Georgiades, Isabel Lucas, Salih Kalyon, Megan Gale, Jacqueline McKenzie, Damon Herriman, Dan Wyllie, Christopher Sommers, Benedict Hardie, Michael Dorman, Robert Mammone, Jack Patterson, Benn Norris, Aidan Smith
Written by: Andrew Knight, Andrew Anastasios
Directed by: Russell Crowe
MPAA Rating: R for war violence including some disturbing images
Language: English, Turkish, Greek, Russian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 111
Date: 04/22/2015

The Water Diviner (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Divine and Conquer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Russell Crowe's feature directorial debut The Water Diviner is both a tribute to new Australian cinema and old Hollywood cinema. It's both a serious lesson about war and a heartstring-tugging entertainment. Crowe the director mostly manages to smooth the edges between these disparate moods. Occasionally he succumbs to moments of flourish or to moments of awkwardness, but for the most part, it's a very satisfying achievement.

Crowe plays Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer who is also the title water diviner. His three sons fought in the 1915 battle of Gallipoli in Turkey, and they were all lost there. It's four years later, and when Joshua's wife dies from grief, he decides to travel there to find out what happened and perhaps bring their bodies home. He gets the reluctant help of a beautiful semi-widowed innkeeper, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), whose husband is missing. She has an adorable son, too, Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), who bonds more effortlessly with Joshua than he does with his grumpy uncle (Steve Bastoni).

Joshua reaches the battlefield and, using his skills, and a diary his sons kept, he pinpoints their exact location, but only two bodies are found. Going on the hunt for the third son, he encounters much red tape. But befriending a Turkish officer, Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), he finds several alternate methods of getting where he needs to go.

Working with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, Crowe offers many beautiful, majestic landscapes, from the Australian outback (including a menacing dust storm), to exotic Istanbul marketplaces and the harrowing battlefields. One sequence takes place inside the famous Blue Mosque, and it's a breathtaking turning point for Joshua. The flashbacks to the war sequences are as harsh as anything you could imagine, with the three brothers lying, wounded and dying, and listening to a cacophony of painful moaning. The sound design is spare and simple, opting for clarity rather than bombast, and -- in some cases -- no sound at all.

Some of the storytelling in the screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios isn't always clear. The locations and history are effortless, but simple things, such as Orhan's uncle -- is he Ayshe's brother, or is he her husband's brother -- are left a little too ambiguous. The lovely Isabel Lucas plays a character called Natalia who hangs around the inn, but who is she, and what is she doing there?

The Water Diviner is far from flawless, but I like it because Crowe seems to have approached it from a place of genuine passion and love. It's a personal story for him in some ways, and in other ways, it shows his love of movies. It doesn't come from the Crowe one sometimes sees portrayed in the tabloids as an egomaniac and a bully. Rather, it's a gentle, heartfelt movie, and it reveals the concerns of a more mature Crowe. It's enough to make me want to see what he can do his next time behind the camera.

Warner Home Video's Blu-ray release offers a fine audio and video transfer for home viewers to enjoy; hopefully folks will catch up with Crowe's heartfelt debut. It includes a few extras, including a 20-minute making-of featurette, and a shorter featurette on the history of Gallipoli, plus a trailer. A Crowe commentary would have been nice (I've always found that actor-directors give good commentary tracks).

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