Russell Crowe’s directorial debut, The Water Diviner, is a decidedly old-fashioned affair.

The Water Diviner mixes war film heroism with romance, tragedy, adventure and the odd bit of mysticism that will remind many of film epics from a bygone era. The result is a tonally uneven film that is nonetheless intoxicating in its visuals and ultimately moving in its message. It’s a film designed for an older, more nostalgic audience that is often disregarded in this modern age of blockbuster explosions and snarky superhero banter. Those looking for a throwback to the kinds of sweeping, emotionally charged storytelling pictures of yore will find much to love here.

Set four years after the end of The Great War, The Water Diviner tells the story of Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe, directing himself), an Australian farmer (and, surprise, water diviner) who lost three sons in the battle of Gallipoli. Unable to overcome her grief, Joshua’s wife Eliza (in an all too brief performance by Jacqueline McKenzie) commits suicide. At her grave, Joshua promises that he will find their sons’ remains in Turkey and bring them back to lay beside her in peace. From there Joshua begins an adventure that takes him to a country still fighting a war that was thought to be over. Along the way questions of faith, love of country, cultural differences, and intimacy are laid at Joshua’s feet as he attempts to find closure surrounding the death of his children.

Probably the best thing about The Water Diviner is Crowe’s performance, which is grounded and never reverts to melodramatic histrionics — an easy trap for this kind of story. Instead, Crowe provides the film with simple everyman appeal, driven by noble intentions and parental justifications. Crowe’s remarkable gift as an actor has always been his ability to instantly bring gravitas to any film he is associated with. His stature is considerable, so to see him tone it down by a large margin while still giving a nuanced, often touching portrait is surprising in its effectiveness.

Other performances peppered throughout are also startling in their honest simplicity. Yilmaz Erdogan gives great humanity to the role of Major Hasan, who during the war was seen as a butcher by the Allied forces, but is now charged with helping them locate their fallen soldiers whose deaths he was ultimately responsible for. Erdogan’s exchanges with Crowe are often the highlights of The Water Diviner’s narrative, giving rich ruminations on the nature of war and sacrifice. Olga Kurylenko gives great depth to a Muslim hotel owner who lost both her bohemian lifestyle and her husband to a war they never wanted to participate in. It’s a shame that her love subplot feels tacked-on and unnecessary despite her natural chemistry with Crowe, but these kinds of films always have a love story. And finally, movie star-destined Jai Courtney does solid work as Lt. Colonel Hughes, who struggles with memories of the war while working with the very men who killed his brothers-in-arms.

The Water Diviner crams a lot of stuff into a fairly straightforward narrative and at times the film suffers for it. Battle scenes are scattered liberally throughout as flashbacks, but are only necessary in two instances, which makes the viewer slightly numb to their overall impact. There is a frequent callback to the book Arabian Nights which Joshua used to read to his children that feels a little too obvious (though its final reference is devastating in its emotional impact). The Arabian Nights motif meshes together awkwardly with the film’s more fantastical moments, which stem from Joshua’s water diviner abilities in unconvincing and unexplained ways. And as previously mentioned, the love subplot is undercooked, but also gets in the way of Joshua’s journey to find his children. However, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotional stakes of the piece and as long as you can forgive a little foolishness, none of these issues get in the way of the film’s message of peace and understanding. There are no winners in war no matter the side you fought on as this film is quick to remind us again and again.

It would be a mistake not to mention the late Andrew Lesnie’s truly remarkable cinematography, which is often ablaze in golden sunlight highlighting the film’s scenic backdrops. Lesnie’s use of light and shadow in The Water Diviner showcases the best of his gifts as a director of photography. After giving us the most astonishing visual representation of a fantasy world on film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and enchanting audiences with his storybook presentation of the Babe films, it seems inconceivable that the 59-year-old camera wizard will never grace us with his awe-inspiring imagery ever again. The Water Diviner is a fitting final work that may come to be remembered as one of his most picturesque, skirting the lines between grand epic and the whimsical fantasy that he was famous for.

Crowe’s first outing behind the camera is a successful, if overstuffed piece of throwback filmmaking. He isn’t able to wrangle all of the film’s themes and set pieces into a cohesive whole, but the missteps are easily forgivable for lovers of this type of filmmaking, which is all too rare in today’s more cynical, young adult-driven entertainment field. Recommending The Water Diviner is all the easier knowing that it is Andrew Lesnie’s last film as DP. These arresting images and the film’s beautiful spirit are just too good to miss.

Grade: B

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