When Australian farmer Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe) sails for the Dardanelles in search of his three sons, presumed dead in the disastrous Allied campaign at Gallipoli four years prior, he encounters a world made modern by suffering. With the ink on the Treaty of Versailles not yet dry, Istanbul in 1919 heaves under the weight of World War I and its tenuous peace: Turkish nationalists loyal to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk march in the streets, the European powers carve the Middle East into colonial protectorates, a hotel proprietor’s son (Dylan Georgiades) promises “clean sheets, hot water, no Germans.” In this sense, The Water Diviner strikes a more ambitious posture than Peter Weir’s remarkable Gallipoli, flooding the viewer with notions of commemoration and the still-unspooling consequences of “the war to end all wars.” And yet, in straining for the profound, the film ultimately loses its way in a veritable no-man’s land of ill-conceived stylistic choices and narrative switchbacks, transforming a skillful, unabashedly old-fashioned epic into that far more frustrating thing: a noble failure.
If the film’s first half suffers from periodic bouts of spice-market Orientalism, as Connor arrives in Istanbul with a copy of The Arabian Nights and visions of whirling dervishes, The Water Diviner nevertheless reconstructs the cultural significance of Gallipoli with thoroughgoing care. The rugged texture of Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography, closing in on the thin coat of perspiration glistening from an Ottoman major’s face, or pulling back to reveal the wide horizons and dusty trails of the Australian outback, recalls the historical romances of the 1980s, and Crowe’s direction evinces a similar sensibility. In an early scene between Connor and his wife, Lizzie (Jacqueline McKenzie), for instance, the camera recedes from her dutifully polishing one son’s boots to show Connor reading aloud to three empty, neatly made beds, a pair of pajamas laid out on each—remembrance as unresolved grief, so unshakable that she takes her own life the next morning.
The Water Diviner is at its best in this simpler, more sincere vein, a moving portrait of the commitment to finding, naming, and honoring the dead. As Drew Gilpin Faust writes of the U.S. Civil War in her essential book This Republic of Suffering, commemorating the deceased rank and file is a relatively new development in the history of warfare, and The Water Diviner, with reference to mass graves at Waterloo and the immense project to retrieve and properly bury those lost at Gallipoli, is finely attuned to the work of remembrance in justifying unimaginable bloodshed as a sacrifice on the altar of patriotism. April 25, Anzac Day, marks the 100th anniversary of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) campaign in the Dardanelles, and the film perhaps soft pedals the crude nationalism at the root of such solemn occasions, including Armistice Day in Europe and Veterans Day in the U.S., to skirt any potential controversies. Even so, with an old photograph of Connor’s sons, a blood-spattered diary, and three spent bullets found in shallow water, The Water Diviner suggests the near-religious power personal and historical memory wield, long after the guns go silent. “She wanted them to be buried in consecrated ground,” Connor says, explaining his plan to bring his sons’ remains back to Australia. “How much blood do you need,” ANZAC Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney) replies, “for it to be holy?”
Unfortunately, as Connor finds an unlikely ally in an Ottoman major by the name of Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), develops an interest in Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), the war widow running his Istanbul hotel, and befriends her son, Orhan, the seams in Crowe’s direction and Andrew Anastsios and Andrew Knight’s clumsy script begin to show. The second half of the narrative features ambushes and escapes, a murky, maudlin glimpse of trench warfare, a train-car cricket demonstration, and even a brief musical number, and Crowe responds, seemingly desperate to keep pace, with a mess of slow motion, match cuts, dream sequences, and action-adventure set pieces. Whatever questions The Water Diviner poses about the modern need for “consecrated ground” in which to lay the victims of patriotism are suddenly left dangling, and the film rushes on toward its finale with all of the sentiment, but none of the subtlety, that mark its opening stages. Indeed, by the time the cloying conclusion arrives, The Water Diviner’s graceful, humane treatment of the commemorative impulse and the collective grief, viewed through the eyes of a man adrift in the Great War’s vast wasteland, seems but a fast-fading memory, as distant in time and space as the Gallipoli campaign itself.