The Water Diviner, film review: Russell Crowe the director digs deep for his debut

(15) Russell Crowe, 111 mins Starring: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Jai Courtney
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Russell Crowe's directorial debut is a solid, old-fashioned piece of film-making set in Australia and Turkey during the First World War and its aftermath that is guilty of some strange historical oversights. For example, there is no mention at all of the Armenian genocide of 1915. (Fatih Akin's recent film The Cut, set in the same period and with a similar storyline about a father searching for a child, uses that genocide as its starting point but Crowe's film doesn't even acknowledge it.)

Crowe himself plays the bereaved father, an Australian farmer and "water diviner" called Connor who sent his three sons off to battle. They were caught in the maelstrom of Gallipoli and all three vanished on the same day in August 1915, presumed dead. His wife is distraught and blames Connor for the boys' disappearance. The farmer has an uncanny knack for discovering water in parched lands. After further family tragedy, he heads to Turkey in 1919, looking for traces of his sons. The Turkish and British authorities warn him that there is nothing at Gallipoli but ghosts.

The Water Diviner is handsomely shot. Individual scenes are often very striking. There is a stirring overture in which we see Connor digging in the sand, like Daniel Day Lewis's prospector in There Will Be Blood looking for oil, and eventually finding water many feet below the surface. In flashbacks we see the farmer and his sons trying to escape a ferocious windstorm. The sequences showing the farmer on the now barren battlefield of Gallipoli have a haunting quality and, late on, there are some rousing action set-pieces involving horses, trains and sweeping torrents. Crowe, still an actor of considerable screen presence, brings his familiar gravitas to his role as the bereaved but very dogged father.

Crowe heads to Turkey looking for traces of his sons (Mark Rogers)

The plotting, though, feels deeply contrived. The film sketches in the relationship between the Australian and a widowed Turkish woman (Olga Kurylenko), whose Istanbul hotel he stays in, in perfunctory fashion. He becomes a father figure to the woman's mischievous, doe-eyed child. There is some tin-eared dialogue about her ability to see into the future by "reading" coffee grains. The buddy movie elements – Connor's burgeoning friendship with the Turkish officer who may have played a part in his sons' deaths – are handled in unconvincing fashion. The references to cricket bats grate, as does an overwrought score.

Crowe is trying to make a David Lean-style epic about war, love and loss but the film is too stuttering and melodramatic ever fully to take wing.