The most surprising thing about The Water Diviner isn’t that Russell Crowe directed it, but that in taking upon the extra role of director, and a debut director at that, Crowe somehow got one of the best performances out of himself in quite some time. Perhaps he’s not been giving a damn about the movies he has been appearing in lately and the chance to work on anything that was distinctly personal to him finally brought it out of him. And while the performance as a farmer who sets out to Turkey to find the bodies of his three children following the bloodshed on the beach of Gallipoli isn’t quite his best work, it’s certainly his most refreshing in a long time and a nice reminder that he can be subtle and can play a regular, normal human being again.
Crowe’s direction of The Water Diviner is certainly more impressive than another recent actor-turned-director: Angelina Jolie on Unbroken. Being an actor and working on sets day-in-day-out does not instantly afford somebody the knowledge of how to do certain things that are required of a director like how to extract performances like Yilmaz Erdogan’s, especially when actors are dealing with potentially silly dialogue (lord knows actors like Crowe have made enough bad movies to suggest they don’t always know what good dialogue looks like as an actor or as a director.)
And to be sure, The Water Diviner certainly has its problems. Take for instance the is-she-or-isn’t-she love interest character played by Olga Kurylenko that comes off as lazy scriptwriting, certainly not helped by the casting of the impossibly beautiful Kurylenko in a fashion that strikes as simple directorial wanking. Or the somewhat less interesting third act wherein Crowe tries his had at a prolonged action set-piece that ultimately doesn’t quite come off as the exciting climax he may have anticipated. And I will always want more Jacqueline McKenzie who just last year in Fell proved her abilities in brief, grief-stricken roles, yet even I was struck by how little she was actually in the film to justify the awards and nominations she has received for what amounts to a cameo. Crowe is most on point as a director when dealing with, well, himself. That could be a worrying sign for any future directing prospects ala Mel Gibson, but for now I’m just going to appreciate that he gives the strongest performance of the film. If his film is a direct attempt at going more back to basics with his acting and reminding people what he’s capable of in the face of Les Miserables and its kind then it’s mostly a job well done.
It’s a handsome movie, too, with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie on board to lens the film in a sea of rich oranges, golds and browns. He was wise to use the visuals to suggest that there’s actually not that all much different around Australia and Turkey, with both countries engulfed by sand and heat. The music by David Hirschfelder also impresses, but ultimately the really does rest on Crowe’s shoulders. If his performance wasn’t as strong as it is then The Water Diviner simply wouldn’t work at all and it would be harder to forgive some of his less impressive directorial judgements.