Gallipoli is the name of a Turkish peninsula where, for eight months in 1915, Allied soldiers fought a catastrophic World War I campaign against the Ottoman Empire. When it was over, each side had lost 56,000 men apiece. About 8,700 of the Allied dead were Australian.
“Gallipoli” is the name of Australian director Peter Weir’s 1981 lacerating and powerful film about the protracted battle. It starred Australian Mel Gibson and it clinched Australia’s reputation at the time as the place where a new wave of exciting filmmakers was doing world-shaking work. What Weir’s recent “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and George Miller’s “Mad Max” hadn’t been able to awaken in people at the time, Gillian Armstrong’s “My Brilliant Career” and Bruce Beresford’s “Breaker Morant” did.
“Gallipoli,” though, put the Aussie filmmakers on another plane.
It’s not surprising that for his debut as a director, Australian (New Zealander by birth) Russell Crowe has gone back to Gallipoli as a subject. “The Water Diviner” is the tale of an Australian farmer four years after Gallipoli who goes back to Turkey to find the three sons who were killed together during the campaign. All he has to help him find them is his oldest son’s diary. All he has to make it an imperative is the suicide of his wife, who could simply no longer go on living with the anguish of so much loss.
So far, so good. There’s a powerful film in there somewhere.
And now comes the first in a series of major speed bumps on “The Water Diviner’s” road to a worthy reputation.
It posits that our farmer (named Conner) is a “water diviner” who can, with just a couple of divining rods, find water underground even in the most parched and least arable land. And that, of course, implies that he can, once he lands in Turkey, divine the exact spot in Gallipoli where his boys met their terrible ends.
You read that right. That’s what happens here.
A director with a gift for magic realism’s flash and filigree – Oscar-winning Ang Lee in “Life of Pi,” for instance – might have done what Crowe wants to do here, which is somehow connect all this to the Magic Carpet story in “The Arabian Nights.”
Crowe can’t do it. He can’t even come close. For his directorial debut, he tried to do something too difficult. What he wound up with is a very awkward movie that has a few moments of charm and a few of brutal wartime power.
Overall, though, it winds up as the ungainly best newly minted 1957 movie you’re likely to see in 2015.
Making a movie with so much old-fashioned epic ambition is, by no means, a bad thing in general. It’s just that it re-emphasizes how awkward Crowe can be when he is not doing the thing that he seems put on this earth to do – act in movies.
His performance here is subtle and fine. As an actor, after all, Crowe can astonish you sometimes – take “The Insider,” for instance. He is always a welcome and capable movie presence. What he brings to the table is the unshakable authenticity of a bloke.
That’s what he is onscreen most of the time. Put him in a role as far as can be from his blokiness – as the tormented mathematician in “A Beautiful Mind” – and it’s his useful Aussie blokiness at the root that lets him carry it off. Same thing with his ancient Roman in “Gladiator.” It’s a bloke’s self-effacement that makes what he does as an actor so easy to believe.
As a director? Not so much.
It’s not that directing movies is not a natural bloke’s profession. It certainly can be. Not for this movie, though. It depended on a cerebral director with great finesse, not a fellow who fell head over heels in love with overhead shots, which wind up belittling characters when he wants us to be marveling at epic landscapes.
He seems to have no sense of cinematic rhythm whatsoever; he doesn’t know how long scenes should go. Too many scenes seem truncated carelessly and then slammed together in clumsy sequence. In some longer ones – when, for instance the Australian farmer and old Turkish soldier band together in common cause against invading Greeks – too little is at stake. They, too, end abruptly.
Have I mentioned that the Australian water-diviner falls in love with a beautiful Turkish hotel manager but so discreetly that you can’t imagine them doing anything together except grinding coffee for that morning’s breakfast. And in a movie rated R for wartime violence.
Remember that the name of Crowe’s rock group is 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. Transfer the kind of ungainliness evident in that as the name for a rock group to the style of a first-time filmmaker.
And that’s what you’ll see in “The Water Diviner.”
If it weren’t for the bloke likability of Crowe the actor – and the beauty of Olga Kurylenko in the hotel – there wouldn’t be anything to hold you fast in your seat for “The Water Diviner” at all.
“The Water Diviner”
∆∆ø (Out of four)
R for wartime violence
Russell Crowe, Jai Courtney, Olga Kurylenko and Dylan Georgides in Crowe’s directorial debut in a story about an Australian farmer trying to find his dead sons four years after the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign.