Russell Crowe has made a career of proving he’s one or another sort of paragon of manhood. He avenged his family in Gladiator, preserved the human race in Noah, and in between pursued vengeance in Les Misérables and The Next Three Days. In his first feature directorial debut, The Water Diviner, Crowe proves that this is no coincidence: Indeed, his interests are deeply circumscribed. He’s willing to pursue what it means to be a man at the expense of far more interesting tangents.
The Water Diviner depicts Crowe as Joshua Connor, a fellow living in post-World War I Australia, who carries himself in the same parody-of-hyper-masculinity manner Crowe’s been doing for years now. He’s blessed with quasi-mystical powers of locating water in the desert, but frustrated at his knowledge of what happened to his sons in the Battle of Gallipoli. These two things are basically unrelated, but treated by the movie, and Crowe’s briefly-onscreen wife (Jacqueline McKenzie) as a mind-boggling paradox. The Water Diviner converts completely understandable human emotions (grief, rage) into logical leaps and decisions that don’t quite add up: And so it is that Joshua heads to Turkey to put his powers of location to work.
Joshua’s powers are never explained by the movie, and we’re given no reason to believe they’ll work, until they suddenly do. Being a psychic, here, lays somewhere between fatherly intuition and boorish over-confidence. Crowe’s process of finding his sons, and the vast amount of arguing he does with Turkish and British authorities who in large part seem to be doing their best, also cuts off potentially interesting sidelines, or forces them to be framed in the dullest possible manner. Perhaps most notably, the mass murder of Armenians in 1915, in the news currently on its 100th anniversary and a recent event within the film’s timeline, is barely alluded to amidst all the talk of Joshua and his sons.
The screenplay deals with a large and diverse group of people in a chaotic geopolitical situation, all of whom are thinking about Joshua Connor at all times. Jai Courtney’s military officer is attempting to deal with a mass burial of the dead, a tremendously challenging assignment he shelves in large part in order to assist Connor. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian-born actress Olga Kurylenko’s Turkish innkeeper, for instance, is an independent businesswoman living in a rapidly changing postwar society. But much of her screen time is lent to her growing attraction to Joshua, just as all of the other Turkish characters work out their feelings about the Allied occupation of Anatolia in relation to Joshua’s search for his sons.
But there are less politically thorny issues at work here. Joshua’s place at the center of the movie would be less of an issue, even despite the unresolved matter of how his powers work and the relative unfairness of pitting a father’s quest against the Turks’ more abstract political ideas, if Crowe were a more dynamic screen presence. After all, movies have to be about someone: Why not him? But, directing himself, Crowe falls into all of his worst habits as an actor, letting his voice fall low and gravelly in an attempt to telegraph big emotions. Crowe needs, badly, a director to push back against his default mode: The script for The Water Diviner posits that Joshua Connor is the most interesting man in the frame at all times, but Crowe’s performance doesn’t earn that.