Magical realism can illuminate and amplify the emotions in a deeply personal story — or, in clumsy hands, it can just create extra distractions and create a giant mess. Russell Crowe tries to use magical realism in his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, and the results are less than great.
Some spoilers follow.
The Water Diviner has a solid story about grief and the lingering trauma of war — but the movie keeps straying into exploring the mystical abilities of Crowe’s character. (Along with another character’s magical fortune-telling via coffee grounds.) These forays into the realm of magical and the supernatural are distracting they end up lessening the film’s well-intended themes of personal and cultural grief.
In The Water Diviner, Crowe’s character, Joshua Connor, is able to do what the film’s title says, and discover water lurking deep underground using divining rods. We see him do this in the first sequence, which comes after an assurance that the film we’re about to see is based on true events, and that those events will pertain to the devastating World War I Battle of Gallipoli.
Via genuinely horrifying flashbacks, we get a sense of the battle’s brutality. It must have been tempting for Crowe to hold back on the violence here and avoid an R rating, but he doesn’t; we see up-close brawls in trenches, faces getting shot off, and worse.
The film opens four years after the battle, which claimed Connor’s three strapping sons. Connor’s wife has never recovered from the loss, and succumbs to her grief in an early scene that allows for some sniping at the Catholic church, since the local priest hesitates over burying an apparent suicide in his cemetery unless the grieving Joshua will “donate” his horse cart.
No matter, since Joshua’s got a new purpose in life: finding the bodies of his sons (because if you’ll recall, he’s able to find anything buried underground, including four-years-dead fallen soldiers ... yeah, the movie absolutely goes there).
So it’s off to Istanbul, where the mild-mannered yet steely and determined Joshua encounters the cartoonishly evil British, who’d rather like to keep this Aussie farmer off the battlefield, now being tended to by the Imperial War Graves Unit. He also meets some sympathetic countrymen (including Divergent’s Jai Courtney), and a respected Turkish Army Major (Yilmaz Erdogan) who’s recently become involved in the Turkish Nationalist Movement.
Everyone, regardless of nationality, is portrayed as suffering the aftereffects of a terrible battle that was part of an even more terrible war. What’s more, it’s made very obvious that the war isn’t actually over for everybody; this means metaphorically, as characters are still suffering post-traumatic stress, and literally, as Joshua’s journey takes him into parts of Turkey that have just been invaded by Greece. In that sequence, for just a few moments The Water Diviner stops being haunted by the past and becomes an Old Man Action Movie, complete with a robust, cricket bat-propelled fight scene and a getaway on horseback.
Various forces conspire to help and/or hinder Joshua’s quest, which admittedly is rather out there, but he’s eventually allowed to do his divining thing because “He is the only father that came looking.” He is also the only father, in any war movie probably ever, who strides thoughtfully around a massive former battlefield and manages to pinpoint — like to the square foot — where two of his sons died. Not exaggerating at all: The soldiers who’ve accompanied him dig down a few feet and find dog tags that read “Connor.” Reality, even magical reality, strains to contain this moment, but the whole thing flies completely off the rails when the assembled parties fail to react with the shock, amazement, fear, etc. that this display of miraculous psychic powers would evoke on any real-life occasion. Instead, it’s “Whooooaaaa!” for a minute, and then everyone kind of moves on.
As an aside, earlier in the film, a character does ask Joshua how he finds water. He starts to share, but the score swells to conceal any dialogue that might explain anything. Instead, we see him making hand gestures and are left to wonder.
Also stretching credibility is the hackneyed romance that someone, be it Crowe or script co-authors Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight, decided The Water Diviner needed. This is the kind of movie where it’s made exceedingly obvious that the pair in question will become a couple before the film ends, because that’s how happy endings work. (And that’s another way the movie slightly strains credulity, casting glamorous, much-younger Olga Kurylenko as his feisty love interest, who suspiciously resembles a Bond girl.)
Joshua and Ayshe (Ukraine-born Kurylenko, since pop culture’s best-known actress of actual Turkish origin, Sibel Kekilli, would’ve been too recognizable from Game of Thrones?) spark because they’re both lonely and good-looking. They’re both a bit out of place, too; she’s photographed like a goddess in every scene, even while cleaning a carpet, and he’s such a rube that he asks “What are they selling?” the first time he hears the Islamic call to prayer. He’s lost his sons, but she has a son, a li’l scamp who lures tourists to her hotel by pretending to steal their luggage. He’s lost his wife, she’s lost her husband, and until she meets this rakish foreigner, is pretty much resigned to becoming her uptight brother-in-law’s second wife. Throw in a candle lit dinner (where, again, the score swells to conceal any conversation ... what the hell are these two talking about?) and some “peasant nonsense” about Turkish coffee’s fortune telling abilities, and you get some unearned emotional moments, as well as drama amid Ayshe’s family that would seem to be the very last thing a man like Joshua, who has a lot on his mind already, would want to deal with.
It’s too bad, since The Water Diviner has a lot going for it. For one thing, considering he could have done whatever he goddamn pleased, Crowe turns in a measured leading performance. It’s not without its sentimental moments, but Crowe keeps it subtle for the most part. Les Misérables this ain’t ... again, for the most part.
Joshua’s journey finally leads him to uncover a shocking truth about one of his sons that isn’t given the narrative space it requires.
And that’s the fundamental problem with The Water Diviner. It wants to be everything in one movie, but there’s not enough room to breathe amid the endless flashbacks both nostalgic and tragic (we barely get to know any of the sons, so it’s hard for us to really care about their fates); a history lesson with a complex (yet extremely under-explained) political point of view; heavy-handed messages about fatherly love; and an exceptionally contrived romance. And most of all, the story keeps getting overwhelmed by its lurches into mysticism.
Perhaps a more experienced director could’ve balanced these elements more effectively, but anyone would have had a hard time managing the tonal shifts that the historical drama and supernatural powers require. In any case, Russell Crowe’s first movie as a director sees him dabbling in magic — and discovering that magic requires a light touch.