At the start of the horribly titled The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe's Joshua Connor is in the Australian desert looking for a place to dig for water. He "divines" a spot and starts digging. Hours later there's a 15-foot hole that's at least five feet wide. He strikes a metal bar into the ground and water bubbles to the surface. It's a win for him, but all I kept thinking was how dumb he'd feel if he was wrong.
That "what if he's wrong?" feeling pervades the film, as Joshua is soon on a quest to find his three missing sons, who were presumably killed in action during World War I four years earlier. He wants to exhume their bodies and bring the bones back home to Australia. The problem is his sons were allegedly killed in Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915 during a battle that claimed 70,000 men. And Joshua's skills (per the title) are with divining the location of water, not his sons' skulls from dirt and mud. But no matter: The plot needs Joshua to have this ability, so he has it. It comes in handy later when he's able to envision exactly how his sons died so we (the audience) can also see it. Oddly, the fact that he's not a religious man makes it a bit more believable.
Crowe also directed this film, and along with writers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios intended the story as homage to the 100-year anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign. Needed background: During WWI the British and French, with heavy support from the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), invaded the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. The hope was to secure the area to prevent a naval attack on Russia, a British ally. However, Turkish forces (then still part of the Ottoman Empire) rebuffed numerous attacks over the course of nine months, leading to heavy casualties for both sides. Strife between Turkey and Australia/New Zealand endured for years.
It is important to point out these facts because they're not common knowledge to Americans, and not knowing them can lead to confusion regarding who hates who and why throughout the film. To wit: On his way to Gallipoli, Joshua stops in Istanbul and stays at a hotel run by Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), her 10-year-old son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), and her brother-in-law Omer (Steve Bastoni). He's Australian and they're Turkish, so there's tension.
But as happens in many war movies, the opposing sides have more in common than they think: Ayshe's husband has been missing since the war, and she's unable to tell Orhan the truth. Joshua hasn't seen his sons and seeks the truth about where they are and what happened to them. On a human level, the two sides want the same things.
ANZAC Lt. Col. Hughes (Jai Courtney), who's in Gallipoli to properly mark ANZAC graves, and Turkish Maj. Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan), who sympathizes with Joshua's cause, aid his search. As the story evolves there are predictable twists, some surprises and dramatic peaks and valleys. This is not a poor first directorial effort for Crowe, but better pacing is needed to increase suspense leading up to the climax, and to avoid lulls throughout. At 110 minutes, it feels about 10 minutes too long, and that's not a good sign considering the epic scale of the story.
The Water Diviner is "inspired by true events," but only loosely. Anastasios came across an old quote from the real Lt. Col. Hughes regarding an "old chap ... from Australia looking for his son's grave," and the idea for the story was born.
Pretty much everything else is fiction, but that's not the point. What is important is that this is a sweeping historical drama that will no doubt play better Down Under than it will stateside. It's not bad, it's just slightly better than mediocre.