Russell Crowe the director might need to work on his instincts and his willingness to edit himself down. Crowe's directorial debut, The Water Diviner, both shows his promise and exposes a few fairly significant flaws in his nascent style. He'll need to work on those to follow the trail blazed by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Ron Howard.
In the positive column is Crowe's eye for a good story. The Water Diviner traces the path of a grief-stricken Australian father, Joshua Connor, played by Crowe himself, who travels across the world to Turkey in an effort to return the remains of his three sons to their home. All three died on the same day in Gallipoli, the site of one of the bloodiest, most notorious and most prolonged battles of World War I. Connor's journey is prompted by the suicide of his heartbroken wife. He has nothing left but this journey -- one that seems destined to end in frustration, considering the unwillingness of British authorities to help amid their own daunting task of trying to identify thousands upon thousands of remains on the mutilated field of battle.
Crowe the director seems to realize that Crowe the movie star is perfect for this sort of character. His most famous role, Maximus in Gladiator, was also a grieving father on a perhaps ill-fated quest. His skillful casting seems to extend beyond recognizing his own greatness. Jai Courtney, playing an Australian officer overseeing the battlefield, Yilmaz Erdogan, playing a Turkish officer begrudgingly assisting the effort at Gallipoli, and Olga Kurylenko, playing the widowed hotelier who becomes a love interest of sorts, all fit snugly in to their roles. They bring the appropriate vivaciousness and melancholy to their parts. They are carrying on in the wake of the unfathomable destruction of the First World War.
What doesn’t work so well is a lack of focus in the story. Crowe’s character is trying to solve a morbid mystery and struggling against post-War bureaucracy. But there is also the forbidden romance between Kurylenko and Crowe. And there are flashbacks to Connor’s sons at Gallipoli. And there is the political intrigue of British occupation and Turkish nationalism.
A historical epic can be all of things, but not in equal or near-equal parts. Despite the obvious heart of the tale and scores of memorable shots from Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, there is too much noise all around it. What Crowe seems to be lacking as a director at this point is discipline. The Water Diviner tries to be too many things to completely and it features a few too many missteps to be considered an auspicious start for Russell Crowe the director.