Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut with "The Water Diviner," a big, glossy World War I movie that has the golden glow and lusty atmosphere of a classic Hollywood production. It's filled with battlefield violence, tender machismo and cross-cultural romance, much of it quite satisfying. Many viewers, in fact, may not even care that "The Water Diviner" uses a controversial and still troubling war as the backdrop for a story that is essentially a lot of sentimental hooey.
Crowe is in fine form, burly and brooding, as Joshua Connor, an Australian farmer whose three sons were soldiers who disappeared in the failed Gallipoli campaign in Turkey. Four years later, Connor travels to Turkey to find their bodies and gets caught up in the country's fractious politics: British occupiers, nationalist militants, Greek invaders. One piece of good news: Connor's hotel manager, Ayshe (an excellent Olga Kurylenko), is a total knockout.
The script, by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, rings truest when it addresses generally the ravages of war and the ironies of peace. At Gallipoli, where the Imperial War Graves Unit is digging for corpses, neither Turkish Major Hasan (a compelling Yilmaz Erdogan) nor Australian Lt. Col. Hughes (Jai Courtney) are thrilled to be working together. These scenes are rich with detail and solid nuggets of dialogue. Of the slaughter on both sides, Hughes says, "I don't know that I forgive anyone."
Canceling out the clear-eyed realism, however, is the mystical conceit driving the story. Connor, who has a gift for finding water with dowsing rods, will use that same power to locate his sons. His magic doesn't end there: Connor joins the Turkish uprising and is surely the only Australian to be so warmly welcomed in. The real purpose of this illogical development is to provide some rousing action sequences.
"The Water Diviner" has stepped on a political land mine because of its strangely insensitive release date -- the very anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide (never mentioned in the movie) at the hands of the Turks, who are portrayed fairly glowingly. Crowe, like his character, seems a little ill-equipped to navigate this tricky territory. "The Water Diviner" just wants to tell an old-fashioned war story, but it might have picked the wrong war.