With "The Water Diviner," Russell Crowe makes his feature directing debut with a big, sweeping period film with battle scenes, family drama, personal redemption, twists of fate and a darling ragamuffin boy for good measure. It's an unsurprisingly ambitious movie from the notoriously, proudly headstrong Crowe, which makes it such a disappointment that it feels so blandly earnest and unexpectedly hesitant, with none of the unnerving conviction the actor often brings even to lightweight promotional appearances.
From a screenplay written by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, the film's story is drawn from one simple line in a letter from an Australian officer — "One old chap managed to get here from Australia looking for his son's grave" — and built out from there. Crowe plays Joshua Connor, a farmer in the Outback with a special gift for finding water, who loses his three sons to the brutal campaign at Gallipoli in 1915, where more than 8,000 Australian soldiers died. Four years later, after his wife has taken her own life out of grief, Connor sets off for Turkey to find the remains of his sons to bring them home and bury his family together.
The film wants to reduce a complex historical situation to nothing but the story of a father's love. In repeatedly going for the easy emotions, Crowe the director and storyteller continually lets down Crowe the actor, giving him little more to do than look alternately mopey or moony. The inclusion of an emergent love interest, a Turkish widow (Olga Kurylenko), also inadvertently diminishes the impact of his search as his heart seems to move on to the first woman he encounters.
In a strange sequence of events as the story nears its conclusion, Crowe's character rides along with a train full of Turkish soldiers into the countryside and ends up fighting alongside them when they are ambushed by a cadre of Greek troops. At that point the film inadvertently begins to imply a strange, "Candide"-like journey in which anything is possible as he floats from one side of a conflict to the other. But this brief spark is snuffed out to return to the film's tepid tale of heartwarming renewal.
The press materials for the film trumpet that the Turkish perspective on the events and aftermath of Gallipoli is also acknowledged. Yet this only opens up the film even more to the uncomfortable reality that it is being released not only around the 100th anniversary of the campaign at Gallipoli but also the atrocities against Armenians that resulted in more than a million deaths and are still contested today. While it might not be part of the story Crowe wanted to tell, its absence feels like an oversight at best, insensitivity at worst.
Throughout the film, Crowe the actor has none of the madness or confidence as in last year's batty but engaging "Noah," and Crowe the filmmaker has none of the wild vision of Ryan Gosling's recent directing debut, "Lost River." The film ends up feeling largely unnecessary as "The Water Diviner" goes off looking for redemption and closure, but what it comes back with is something that feels inert, dry and empty.
'The Water Diviner'
Rated: R, for war images, including some disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour and 51 minutes
Playing: In wide release.