LOS ANGELES (AP) — Making his directorial debut with the brawny and big-hearted Australian war drama “The Water Diviner,” Russell Crowe taps a deep well of symbolism, cultural empathy and good old-fashioned storytelling. Crowe, who also stars as a grieving father stoically bulldozing through Turkey in search of three sons missing in action after the World War I battle at Gallipoli, is on shakier ground with a gooey romantic subplot, which brings to mind the actor’s out-of-his-element performance in the Ridley Scott rom-com “A Good Year.” With the centenary of Anzac — Australia’s WWI commemorative holiday — commemorations on the horizon, Australians will likely clasp this locally made, handsomely mounted melodrama to their collective bosom. Overseas prospects are less promising, despite the presence of the thinking man’s Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace”) and a wealth of exotic, postcard-pretty locales.
Mysticism laces the screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, offering an otherworldly counterpoint to the gruesome realities of war and its relentlessly painful aftermath. This is a film that doesn’t glorify war a bit, despite the legend that has grown up around the tens of thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops sacrificed during the failed offensive on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915.
Following a punchy opening that, unconventionally for an Australian war film, provides a sympathetic view from behind enemy lines, we switch to the parched outback of Australia, where Crowe’s farmer, Joshua Connor, is digging for wells. Water-divining — known as dorelies on the practitioner’s psychic gift for locating his treasure beneath the ground. This talent comes in handy when Crowe, prompted by a tragedy on home soil that compounds the anguish of losing three sons in battle four years previously, makes his way to Turkey determined to find closure by bringing his boys’ remains home. Landing in Constantinople, Joshua secures lodgings at a hotel run by a cagey Muslim widow named Ayshe (Kurylenko), whose riotous beauty refuses to be tamed by a succession of frumpy get-ups.
From here, Crowe’s film takes an unexpected turn, becoming both an intuitive exploration of Turkish culture and a respectful assertion that, although the Anzacs lost at Gallipoli, the Turks were losers too. The idea that grief confronts all nationalities caught up in the so-called Great War is embodied in the person of senior Turkish military officer Major Hasan (Turkish actor Yilmaz Erdogan). When Crowe circumvents the roadblocks thrown up by military bureaucracy and turns up in a fishing boat on the shores of Gallipoli, Major Hasan becomes an unlikely ally in the search for his sons. Hasan and offsider Sgt. Jemal (Cem Yilmaz) are helping Australian officer Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney) and the Imperial War Graves unit in the recovery and burial of Australian soldiers from the now-desolate battlefield. Explaining his willingness to help the broken but resolute farmer, Hasan replies: “He’s the only father who came looking.”
The film gives a lot of space to emotions, but Crowe reins in his outsized personality to contribute an affecting, understated performance and, as director, underplays the allegories, particularly the recurring water motif, so they seep through the narrative organically. He also has surrounded himself with talented co-stars — Ryan Corr’s heartrending turn in the grisly flashback battlefield scenes is particularly memorable — and a top-drawer crew. Oscar-winner Andrew Lesnie’s (The Lord of the Rings) cinematography is so exquisite that sometimes it alone propels the story.