The press conference for ‘The Water Diviner’ is held at Claridge’s, and amongst all of the glitz, gold and glamour, Russell Crowe cuts an opposing visual. Bedecked in a hoodie and trainers, there’s a surly quality to his presence, and it’s something that fits the perception of the man who is known for his somewhat antagonistic relationship with the media.
When co-star Olga Kurylenko is asked about what attracted to her to an Australian based project, Crowe makes a joke that she must’ve been bribed with koalas. He’s kidding and everyone laughs, but there’s an edge beneath it. ‘The Water Diviner’ marks the first time Crowe has directed a film. Much like Clint Eastwood, his direction touches on emotion and sentimentality that isn’t entirely to be expected from the gruff personas they’re associated with. ‘The Water Diviner’ is an entirely gripping story that follows Joshua Connor (Crowe), a farmer in 1919 Australia who travels to Turkey and to the site of the Battle of Gallipoli to find out what happened to his three sons who served in ANZAC: an Australian and New Zealand force who travelled across the world to serve in WW1. In Istanbul, he meets Ayshe (Kurylenko), a hotel manager who lost her husband in the same battle. It is Crowe’s understated performance as the bereaved father that gives the film its emotional heart.
It’s something that brings Crowe to life, when he talks about being a father and how it affected and informed his performance. “As anyone who is a parent knows, once you become a parent you see every single thing differently.” It was partly what attracted him to the film. Crowe previously had offers to direct films but he felt it was “too easy”, and they were just looking for “any famous bastard” to attach a name to a project. With ‘The Water Diviner’ it was different. “I no doubt read the script in a deeper way because I’m the father of two boys.”
Much of ‘The Water Diviner’ is gorgeously shot, whether it is taking in the vast emptiness of the Australian Outback, or the majesty of Istanbul and its sights like the Blue Mosque. That beautiful filmmaking does not extend to the flashbacks of the Battle of Gallipoli, where war is shown as chaotic, violent, senseless and above all, ugly. “It’s unashamedly anti-war, it doesn’t glorify it.” Crowe says, bringing up one scene where a character is shot in no man’s land and left to bleed out. It’s a harrowing, agonisingly long scene that stays with you after the credits roll. “I’d never thought about it like that. You think someone gets shot and it’s done. I’ve never thought about what it would be like to feel your life force slipping away. For six hours, eight hours, ten hours.”
If Crowe often emphasises the horrors of war, he’s equally interested in showing a balanced portrayal of those on both sides of the conflict. The film deals with the on-going hostility between the two sides but ensures both the British/Australian forces and the Turkish soldiers are fairly portrayed. There are no right or wrong sides, no real winners when it comes to war.
This is well represented in the character of Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), who delivers a fantastic performance. Weary yet stoic and compassionate yet guilty, it shows the nuances of real men in war rather than relying on jingoistic sentiment. This ability to look at the conflict in an open manner is no doubt a large part of the reason the film has done so well in Turkey. Crowe acknowledges films like Peter Weir’s ‘Gallipoli’ for their quality, but mentions a “cultural connection” that he felt, which meant that he had to do more than portray the Australian account of the conflict.
As a directorial debut, ‘The Water Diviner’ is broadly impressive, helped by some excellent performances and cinematography. Although at times, it is a tad reliant on clichés and there’s a lack of subtlety in the development of the relationship between Crowe and Kurylenko’s characters, which feels altogether too Hollywood. Its successes are where it tears down the ideas of glory in war and replaces them with abject. The scenes of war are devoid of gallantry and their parts in it all ineffably shape the characters. ANZAC and Australia’s role in the Battle of Gallipoli is seen in a patriotic light in Australia, Crowe cognisantly notes that a century after that battle took place, themes of reconciliation are far more important. Crowe may be noted for his attitude or gruffness, but ‘The Water Diviner’ speaks to a softer emotional core.
The Water Diviner is out in cinemas nationwide from Fri 3 Apr