Russell Crowe on his new film The Water Diviner

RUSSELL Crowe explains why he wanted to give a different perspective to the devastating Gallopoli campaign, writes Alistair Harkness

Russell Crowe directs and stars in The Water Diviner. Picture: Contributed
Russell Crowe directs and stars in The Water Diviner. Picture: Contributed

‘I always sort of considered this thing as the journey of a mad man,” says Russell Crowe of his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, about an outback farmer (played by Crowe) who travels to Gallipoli in the aftermath of the First World War to bring back the bodies of his three sons.

Crowe may be referring to his character’s journey here rather than the one he undertook directing it, but given that the film sees the Hollywood star weighing in on a military campaign that has not only had a profound effect on his adopted home country’s national psyche, but has already been definitively explored on screen in one of Australia’s greatest films – Peter Weir’s Gallipoli – it’s easy to see how there could be some crossover, especially with the centenary of the Gallipoli conflict coming up on 25 April.

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Crowe, however, was unfazed about interrogating some of the perceived myths that have grown up around the conflict. Indeed, one of the strengths of The Water Diviner is that it looks at the Anzacs’ ill-fated campaign to seize the Gallipoli peninsula from the Ottoman Empire from a Turkish perspective as well as an Antipodean one.

“What I had was an experience when I read the script for the first time that was very exciting, but also very embarrassing for me,” says Crowe of the story, which begins showing the Anzac retreat from the Turkish point of view, before focusing on the relationship Crowe’s character, Joshua, forms with a Turkish commander (Yilmaz Erdogan), who offers to help him find his sons, and an Istanbul widow (former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), whose husband has disappeared. “All the times I’ve been to Dawn Services, all the moments of silence I’ve taken to remember the sacrifice that these young soldiers had made at Gallipoli, I had never for a single second, I realised, spent any time thinking about the other point of view.

“And people talk in terms of reciprocal respect, but one of the things you discover in the process is that the Turkish people don’t even call Gallipoli Gallipoli. They call it Çanakkale. So even in this situation, where we have this lip service about mutual respect, we didn’t even know this fundamental thing: that they call this conflict by a completely separate name.”

In a London hotel, casually dressed in black rugby top and jeans, Crowe seems perfectly at ease in his new role as the creative driving force for an entire movie. That’s perhaps unsurprising. He’s often taken a proprietary attitude towards his movies, even before the Oscar-winning success of Gladiator gave him the clout to do so.

Nevertheless, directing a movie has been a long time coming. He was due to make his debut back in 2003/2004 with an urban-set story told, Rashômon-style, from multiple perspectives. Feeling it was all coming together a bit too easily, he pulled the plug on it. “It just felt wrong,” he says. “It was financed in one meeting, everyone was happy with what I wanted to do, and I realised that people were only connected to it because I was a famous bastard. They didn’t really have any belief that I would bring a particular viewpoint as a director.”

In the intervening years, he’s toyed with making a biopic of the late, great American stand-up Bill Hicks, but mostly has kept busy acting, becoming Ridley Scott’s go-to star of choice (they’ve made five films together: Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body Of Lies and Robin Hood) and taking on diverse roles in the likes of Les Misérables, Man Of Steel and Darren Aronofsky’s entertainingly out-there Noah.

When he found himself having a visceral reaction to Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios’ script for The Water Diviner, though, he realised he’d found the right project to direct. Or rather, it had found him. “That’s a good way to put it. I was making notes on half the characters, I was correcting dialogue and doing all the other things that I do. But there was this other thing happening, where in some sort of fundamental way I believed that I was the only person who could tell this story in the way it needed to be told. And that’s the sort of arrogance of a director in the first place.”

Although Crowe has worked with some of the greatest filmmakers in the world (“I’ll call Ridley this afternoon and tell him,” he quips), given that one of them includes Weir – they made Master And Commander together – it’s surprising to learn he didn’t seek him out for advice, given the Gallipoli connection. “It’s purely coincidence that these two films are kind of companion pieces,” says Crowe. “Peter’s film finishes with Mark Lee’s character going over the top and freeze-frames the moment the bullet strikes him. This story is about the grief of the parents left behind when their young sons went to war and a lot of people didn’t come back.”

Though The Water Diviner functions partly as a historical romance and partly as a semi-mystical tale of a father’s search for truth, Crowe was adamant about also making it a blatant anti-war movie. In contrast to Gallipoli, for instance, here we get scenes of soldiers bleeding out for hours on end in no man’s land, which adds another layer of reality to the way death during the conflict has previously been portrayed on screen.

“The Lone Pine battlefield is actually the size of two championship tennis courts and 9,000 people died there in four days,” says Crowe. “One thing I read was that the bodies were nine-high coming out of the trench, so you had to climb over nine corpses before you had the joy of being shot as well.

“That’s a silly way of saying it,” he adds quickly, “but you understand what I’m saying. It’s horrific.”

What struck him most about his initial location scouts was the feel they gave him for what happened. Sailing at dawn into what’s now known as Anzac Cove, he immediately understood how unsuitable a location it was to launch an invasion – a word, incidentally, that Crowe uses cautiously. “That’s a hard word, ‘invasion’,” he says. “Australians and New Zealanders don’t talk about Gallipoli in terms of invasion and when I started talking about the film in that way there were a few people getting upset.”

He’s referring to the controversy whipped up in the Australian and New Zealand national press last year when veterans’ groups were quoted taking issue with some of Crowe’s assertions. He’s sanguine about it now. “If you work for a newspaper you know exactly the dude you can talk with to get a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to something to do with the military. Then people started to see the film and that kind of criticism just evaporated. Because people have realised it’s made with a great deal of love and a great deal of care. And the things that it talks about are things that we should talk about.”

• The Water Diviner is on general release