Historical-based films present a particular challenge, not only to the filmmakers but to the audience. Without knowing who in their prospective audience will know the first thing about the topic their covering, the filmmakers (in this case, Crowe directed a screenplay by Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight) must decide how much context to present. I freely admit to having vast gasps in my knowledge of world history, so I didn’t know much about the Battle of Gallipoli—a Turkish-based World War I campaign that spanned over eight months that resulted in casualties in excess of 200,000 on both sides. So, in order to sit and watch the film, I have to take what is offered as historical “fact” at face value, unless I want to investigate further (which I usually do, purely out of my own desire to know more, but it’s difficult to incorporate that kind of research within review deadlines).
At its core, however, The Water Diviner is about an Australian farmer named Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe). He and his wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) lost their three sons to the Battle of Gallipoli. Just after the war has ended, Joshua works as a “water diviner” —also known as a dowser. Also known as a person who wanders around with sticks, trying to locate a suitable place to dig for ground water. I don’t know how much truth there is in this practice, but Joshua appears to be good at the process. He seems to take some solace in the satisfaction he gets when striking water and digging a new well. Eliza, however, hasn’t gotten over her grief. “How come you can find water, but you can’t find our sons?” she pleads. The boys’ bodies were never recovered.
The meat of The Water Diviner occurs after Joshua has lost everything, not only his wife but even his trusty dog. He embarks on a risky journey to Turkey with the intent of recovering his sons’ bodies and finding out as much about their fate as possible. There he meets Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), who runs a hotel. She’s a beautiful widow with a son, Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), who immediately takes a shine to Joshua. If you’re already thinking a romance between Joshua and Ayshe will blossom, you’re on the right track. Predictable romantic subplots aside, there are some undoubtedly gripping sequences as Joshua gets deeper into the tumultuous Turkish surroundings, finds himself endangered, and uncovers some big surprises surrounding the fate of his three sons.
Crowe delivers a powerful, layered performance that’s all the more impressive when considering he was directing for the first time as well. Some controversy has sprung up over the sympathetic portrayal of the Turkish government, omitting the genocide committed against Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. Crowe was taken to task by multiple commentators from multiple corners of the media, with some considering his film an act of blatant revisionism. Which brings me back to my initial point about historical films: what responsibility to the filmmakers have to include all angles? Most works of fiction set during a particular historical period do take liberties for the sake of telling a compelling story, but how much liberty can be taken before it becomes egregious? I don’t have the answers, I’m just trying to articulate how detrimental works of historical-based fiction can be if we don’t know the whole story. On a personal, character-based level, the story of Joshua Connor is a pretty compelling one.
Warner’s Blu-ray of The Water Diviner offers a stunningly detailed transfer of Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography. The Australian locations provide the kind of visual feast that’s a perfect showcase for high definition home video. The audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1.
Special features are significantly limited, with only two featurettes included. “The Making of The Water Diviner” is a standard look behind the scenes, with plenty of praise for Russell Crowe’s directing skills. “The Battle of Gallipoli” could’ve provided some much-needed historical content to accompany the film, but it’s a scant seven minutes long.