Russell Crowe may be the most misunderstood artist working today. The common perception of the hot-tempered Oscar winner "fightin' 'round the world" continues to unfairly overshadow the actor's impressive body of work (Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, American Gangster, Robin Hood, Noah, the list goes on). It's a damn shame, because people who subscribe to this line of thought are completely missing the fact that Crowe is at heart a craftsman with a singular, intense appreciation for the creative process. Lucky for those of us paying attention that Crowe's passions are able to come alive in full force through his debut directorial feature, The Water Diviner.
In this epic journey about a father who travels to Turkey seeking news of his lost sons, Crowe stars as Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer with a special gift for intuiting -- "divining" -- water hidden underground in the dusty Outback. It's 1919, four years after the bloody battle at Gallipoli, and Joshua's three boys have never returned from combat. Arriving in Istanbul intent on discovering what happened to his children, the bereaved father encounters an unusual cast of characters all dealing with their own hardships in the World War's aftermath: Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), an attractive hotelier widowed by the conflict; her young son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), who quickly bonds with Joshua; and Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdoğan), a Turkish officer who fought at Gallipoli and may hold the key to Joshua's quest. Surprising in its complexity and compassion, The Water Diviner's intricate story transcends Joshua's ordeal to explore how the gunshots of modernity shattered an entire world -- and how the power of love can spur the most ordinary people to extraordinary adventures.
This would be an ambitious project for any director to undertake successfully, but what makes The Water Diviner fascinating is how Crowe imbues the movie with his own unique alpha-maleness. While testosterone-fueled action swings hard and heavy (Sandstorm rescues! Steam train escapes! High-stakes horseback rides!), it's layered in with such empathic filmmaking that the result is both visually arresting and emotionally affecting.
An opening sequence that finds Joshua in the wilderness, divining rods in hand and alone save for the loyal dog at his side, perfectly illustrates how Crowe combines the awesome with the intimate. Viewers are treated first to some exotic shots of the Australian Outback, then a quiet close-up of our hero at one with the elements, rods swaying in the breeze until he identifies the perfect spot to dig a well. A montage follows that lovingly details the construction -- its depths and reinforcements -- and when the water at last flows free, the camera lingers on Crowe's eyes alight with victory and relief. "Hope is a necessity where I come from," he will say later in the film, and this introduction to his character explains why -- it takes superhuman effort to survive in the heat and desolation of his homeland.
And speaking of superhuman effort, well, here's where that total devotion to process comes in. Crowe often professes his excitement about researching a role, but wearing the director's hat enabled him to plunge The Water Diviner's cast and crew headfirst into "a very concentrated tertiary education in what it is to prepare for cinema." This meant a full-on boot camp conducted at Crowe's farm in New South Wales, where the Water Diviner team underwent rigorous physical training (50-kilometer bike rides, hikes through bush terrain, archery lessons and training in weapons appropriate to the movie's setting) and nightly lessons about the social and political history of the Ottoman Empire.
"To a man, the day that we were ready to shoot, [the cast] walked in the door and it's like everything about them is the character... There's a mile deep behind their eyes of all the things they know about the time period, the subject matter, who their character is."
It's evident in watching The Water Diviner that Crowe's immersive method worked like magic. Not one second of anachronistic footage exists in the final cut. (Credit must also go to Crowe's innate ability to get inside the head of historical characters, as those familiar with his songs like "Queen Jane" and "Land of the Second Chance" will recognize.)
The actors playing Joshua's boys (Ryan Corr, Ben O'Toole, and James Fraser) seem particularly connected to their roles, probably because their boot camp experience began before they were even cast. Realizing he needed special personalities to inhabit these pivotal characters, Crowe gathered a dozen candidates for a grueling marathon audition to see who would be able to maintain creativity over a strenuous workday. (This was inspired by an audition technique Crowe learned early in his career from director George Ogilvie.)
"You don't want to be working with someone who can give you a great five-minute audition, but can't keep up with a 12-hour day... And oddly enough, the ones I thought were going to be my guys going into the day didn't end up getting the roles. It was the actors who... showed themselves to be the type of workers I needed around me, who would listen to direction and still be coming up with things when they were tired... Not for a second did Ryan, Ben or James ever let me down."
Male bonding in life certainly translates well to the screen. Much of The Water Diviner exudes a primal physicality (see Joshua's outburst at the Gallipoli graveyard), but this becomes doubly effective when juxtaposed with tender moments of intimacy, seen most poignantly in the movie's father-son relationships. Despite Olga Kurylenko's beauty and excellent performance as the complicated Ayshe, the real love stories here revolve around Joshua's ties to his sons and his growing connection with the young Orhan. The surrogate father-son friendship with the little boy reinvigorates our grieving protagonist, indicating that the waters of love can, often from innocence, spring anew.
"Innocence" is not a word most people would likely associate with a Russell Crowe movie, but after The Water Diviner, "inspiring" will be. Aside from the film's gorgeous cinematography thanks to Oscar winner Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King), this is a story that allows audiences to believe in miracles. As actor, musician, and producer Crowe has proven over and over again that impossibilities can be made possible with a little instinct and a lot of focus. Maybe now that he's a director people will actually focus in on him the way he deserves.
Top photo: Russell Crowe as Joshua Connor in THE WATER DIVINER