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Russell Crowe’s ‘The Water Diviner’ becomes an adventure in directing: 2.5 stars

Russell Crowe, who also directed, plays a farmer with an uncanny ability to find water. Now he is on a search to find his soldier sons.
Russell Crowe, who also directed, plays a farmer with an uncanny ability to find water. Now he is on a search to find his soldier sons. Warner Bros.

If he ever quits acting, Russell Crowe could have an impressive directing career.

With his debut, “The Water Diviner,” the Oscar winner shows the same steady confidence behind the camera as he does in front of it.

This particular story is a daunting one, for both the director and audience. Crowe carries most of the film, tackling intense physical and emotional challenges as Australian farmer Joshua Connor, who travels to Turkey just after World War I to learn the fates of his three sons, who went missing in the Battle of Gallipoli. But just because the war is over doesn’t mean his journey is safe, and Connor is quickly mired in the chaos that has enveloped the country.

Connor (he’s rarely addressed by his first name) is only interested in his personal quest, and writers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios give him a boost by making him skilled at dowsing (hence the title). He can find water in the Outback using two sticks, so he should have a similar ability to locate his kids, right?

It doesn’t make sense in the movie, either, but it’s a convenient way to expedite Connor’s search. There are so many subplots and side plots, the filmmakers have to speed it up somehow.

While staying in Istanbul, Connor develops feelings for a beautiful war widow (Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), and befriends her young son (Dylan Georgiades), which becomes a mushy story of its own.

He also allies with a former Turkish officer (Yilmaz Edrogan) who helps him cut through the occupying British government’s red tape. Since that’s clearly not enough, Connor also gets caught in the crossfire between the invading Greek army and Turkish nationalists.

Crowe’s acting ability is a given, but his deft direction of this messy narrative is perhaps more surprising. “The Water Diviner” isn’t some safe, pedestrian attempt to test the waters for a new career phase. It’s an ambitious and difficult film that could have fallen apart at any moment.

Although he should have forced the story to stay focused on Connor’s search, Crowe chooses to juggle every crazy thing the writers throw at him. Flashbacks to a massive Australian dust storm? Sure, and it makes for a terrifying sequence. Gruesome war footage, repeated in detail? It shows both dramatic depth and action, so absolutely. A daring escape from mean, stereotyped Brits? Crowe gets to do his Errol Flynn impression, so why not?

Meanwhile, the heart of the story gets lost, until a final encounter brings Connor back to his real purpose. Even that is wrapped up in a complicated action scene, touched by Connor’s mystical powers. (Although it carries an “inspired by true events” tag, the script is really just an amalgam of war-related stories, with no psychic connections.)

By the time it ends, “The Water Diviner” has rediscovered its narrative but lost its momentum. Crowe’s willingness to let this happen is problematic, but he shows so much technical skill and sensitivity, it’s hard to blame him if he tries too hard to do too much. Here’s hoping he has the chance to do more — just not all at the same time.

(At the AMC Barrywoods, Studio 30, Town Center, Ward Parkway.)

See more of Loey Lockerby’s work at suchacritic.com.

‘THE WATER DIVINER’

1/2

Rated R | Time: 1:51

ANZAC DAY IN KC

Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, the first campaign in World War I when ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces suffered major casualties. ANZAC Day is now celebrated every April 25, honoring those who died in the line of duty from World War I on.

▪ On Saturday, Kansas City’s National World War I Museum, in conjunction with ANZAC military personnel stationed in the area, will observe the day in the traditional manner. The event begins with a Gun Fire Breakfast at 5:30 a.m. featuring tea, coffee and ANZAC Day biscuits (cookies), followed by a ceremony at 6 a.m. at the base of the Liberty Memorial. Admission is free.

▪ In July, the museum will host the exhibit “A Centenary of Australian War Art,” featuring 41 artworks from the Australian War Memorial, depicting military experience from World War I to Afghanistan.

| The Star

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