World War I cost Australian farmer Joshua Connor everything he held dear. Three of his sons were killed in the Battle of Gallipoli. His beloved wife was so crippled by grief and shock that she took her own life.
Feeling that his existence had lost all purpose, Connor decided to travel to Gallipoli to search for the bodies of his sons. He had promised is late wife, he would bring the boys -- or at least their bodies -- home.
Russell Crowe found Connor's story interesting enough to move behind the camera and direct his first movie, The Water Diviner.
Perhaps knowing that Water Diviner would be a hard sell without a star, Crowe also plays the lead role. He's Connor, a character who appears in nearly every frame of a film that's trying to be ... well ... many things: a robust adventure, a grim story about the horrors of war, an encouraging look at friendship across a cultural divide, as well as a romance.
That's a bit much for any movie. The overload may explain why The Water Diviner turns into a mixed bag of movie that works better in some parts than in others.
Connor, by the way, gives the movie its title. He's unusually adept at discovering water, using divining rods to show him where to dig wells.
The story gets rolling when Connor reaches Turkey. The British army (hated in Turkey) doesn't want Connor to travel to the ravaged battlefield of Gallipoli to search for his sons' bodies. He must fight the military bureaucracy while dealing with the culture shock of being in a country that's entirely foreign to him.
Upon arrival in Turkey, Connor finds a hotel where he's befriended by the son (Dylan Georgiades) of the hotel's owner (Olga Kurylenko). Crowe keeps the romance between Connor and Kurylenko's Ayshe at subdued levels, but it's still a pro forma affair and not nearly as interesting as the brutal war footage (shown in flashback) or the adventure that ensues when Connor hooks up with a Turkish officer (Yilmaz Erdogan) to travel deep into Turkey.
This Turkish officer helps Connor, and paves the way for the movie's big twist, which is both horrific and heartbreaking.
If you know nothing about the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16, you may find the movie's politics a bit confusing. British and French troops fought at Gallipoli along with Australian divisions and the New Zealand Army Corps. The Ottoman Empire was allied with the Germans.
Whatever you know, you certainly can follow Connor on an adventure that's layered with grief over a war's massive casualties.
Crowe's well-crafted period piece would have done well to dispense with elements that feel as if they've been added to make the movie more user friendly: The romance between Connor and Ayshe and the surrogate father/son relationship between Connor and Ayshe's son deplete the movie's power rather than adding to its richness.
Crowe isn't afraid to temper his portrait of Connor with bitterness, but as I watched The Water Diviner, I couldn't help wondering whether he too often flinches from the story's hardest truths with the introduction of obvious movie ploys.