The “Water Diviner” is a most unusual war movie. The feature directorial debut of Russell Crowe, who also stars, it expertly weaves prewar, postwar and wartime story elements into a compelling tale of loss and reconciliation. And it does so with an evenhanded, sympathetic treatment of the adversaries on both sides of the conflict.
The conflict is World War I, more specifically the battle of Gallipoli, which turned the Turkish peninsula into a charnel house in which more than 100,000 men — Allies and Ottoman Turks — perished. Among those are the three soldier sons of Crowe’s character, an Australian farmer named Joshua Connor. They died together on the same day, and the picture is the story of their father’s search for their remains and the meaning of their sacrifice.
What’s unusual about “The Water Diviner” is the emphasis that it places on the Turks. It opens in the Turkish trenches and follows the Turkish troops as they charge across the shell-cratered no man’s land. This scene introduces Ottoman army Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan, in a grave and thoughtful performance), who after the war allies himself with Joshua in the search for his sons’ remains.
The picture mostly takes place in Turkey (though it was largely shot in Australia), and it is in Istanbul where Joshua has his introduction to Muslim society and begins a complicated relationship with that society when he becomes involved with a lovely Turkish war widow (Olga Kurylenko) and her precocious young son (Dylan Georgiades).
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Grief and guilt torment Joshua. He blames himself for having allowed his sons to go off to war, and his grief is compounded by the fact his wife, driven to suicide by the loss, blamed him for their deaths as well. It’s the power of that grief that sends him across the world to a strange land to try to somehow heal his spirit. And it’s the power of his devotion that impresses Hasan “because he is the only father who came looking” for answers. The bond of respect that forms between the two men is at the heart of the movie.
Crowe’s direction is very assured, though the picture’s power is somewhat diluted by schmaltz, particularly in gauzy scenes with Kurylenko’s Hollywood-lovely widow and her too-cute-for-words son.
But its wrenching battle scenes, particular one showing vicious hand-to-hand combat in the trenches, and its anti-war message — Joshua believes his sons’ sacrifice was an exercise in futility — offset the lapses into treacle.