‘The Water Diviner’: Russell Crowe’s experience pays off in feature directing debut

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Last week at Ebertfest, Chazz Palminteri talked about how difficult it was for the studio to accept Robert De Niro as the director of “A Bronx Tale” some two decades ago.

After all, De Niro had never directed before. But as Palminteri pointed out, the man had spent years on the sets of Martin Scorsese films; surely he had picked up a thing or two.

So it is with “The Water Diviner,” the feature film directorial debut of Russell Crowe, a favorite of directors such as Ridley Scott and Ron Howard — not to mention a man with a lifetime of experience on film sets. (Crowe’s parents were caterers for movies and TV shows in Australia. He started hanging around sets when he was 6.) Indeed, this is the 51-year-old Crowe’s first time as a movie director, but he’s hardly a novice actor stepping behind the camera for some sort of vanity project.

The experience shows with “The Water Diviner,” a first-rate post-World War I drama with a heavy dose of sentiment and a gripping storyline.

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This is an indie film disguised as a sweeping epic. Filmed on a limited budget, with a talented, diverse cast of actors who (other than Crowe) are far from household names in the States, this is a strikingly beautiful, unabashedly melodramatic and at times shamelessly old-fashioned story.

There’s no defending that obtuse title, and it might be a tough sell to get American audiences into the theater to see a story about a search for the bodies of Australian soldiers in Gallipoli in 1919, but the core themes of “The Water Diviner” echo movies from “Casablanca” to “Paths of Glory.”

Looking muscular but bulky and world-weary, Crowe plays Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer with an uncanny gift for finding water deep underground, using only a crudely fashioned stick and his instincts.

Joshua sent all three of his young sons off to war in Turkey as if they were embarking on a grand adventure, a la “The Arabian Nights,” the book he read to them countless times when they were boys.

He is paralyzed with regret over that day. None of the three make it home. Bound to keep a promise to his deceased wife, Joshua makes the trek from Australia to Turkey, determined to find the remains of his boys and bring them home.

The gifted cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who shot the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films, does nomination-worthy work here, shifting colors and filters to capture the breathtaking and endless blue skies of Australia; the claustrophobic, terrifying and bloody flashback sequences in the battle of Gallipoli, and the bustling, tension-filled, exotic profile of Istanbul, where smoke and dust dance in the air, the streets are jam packed with merchants and protesters, and there are precious few quiet pockets in the entire city.

Joshua takes up residence in a hotel that’s seen better days and a much higher occupancy rate. Conveniently enough for a romantic subplot, the proprietor is the gorgeous and kindly Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), whose husband has been missing and presumed dead for years. Ayshe has a precocious 11-year-old son, Orhan, who takes an instant liking to Joshua. We can see the plot machinations turning as Joshua rediscovers his paternal side, and Ayshe gazes approvingly from across the hotel courtyard. If only they weren’t from such different worlds! Can romance even be discussed? Hmmmm.

Actually, more screen time is devoted to the dynamic between Joshua and the Turkish Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan, excellent), now tasked with helping the former enemy uncover and identity the remains of their fallen soldiers.

At one point Joshua explodes with rage at Major Hasan, spitting and screaming, “You killed my beautiful boys!” Major Hasan respectfully but forcefully replies it was Joshua who sent his sons to Major Hasan’s country, to invade his land, to try to kill his countrymen.

Crowe is well suited to the role of the stoic, bullheaded, loving, grieving father who refuses to listen to reason and ignores the madness of a quest to find his sons among the skeletal remains of thousands of long-dead soldiers. Olga Kurylenko, perhaps best known to American audiences as a Bond woman in “Quantum of Solace,” does fine work as a woman torn between loyalty to the memory of her husband and her undeniable feelings for Joshua. Jacqueline McKenzie, who worked with Crowe 20-plus years ago in “Romper Stomper,” does unforgettable work in a small but pivotal role as Joshua’s wife, who is destroyed by her grief for her boys.

When people say, “They don’t make movies like this any more,” well, sometimes they do.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Russell Crowe and written by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated R (for war violence including some disturbing images). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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