“In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.” — Herodotus

In 1915, with World War I ravaging Europe and costing untold lives, the players at war cooked up a mess that put British, French and Australian troops along with the New Zealand Army on the beach of the Gallipoli peninsula. A protracted battle with the Turks on their home ground was a disaster. Eventually the British, badly beaten and with morale in tatters, evacuated, leaving a ghost scape behind.

Director/actor Russell Crowe wisely spends little time with all the details of the Ottoman empire, and the coalition of nations involved in the grand mess. He manages somehow to dance around all of it and to get to the point, aided by a good script by Andrew Anastasios and Andrew Knight, from a novel by Anastasios and Dr. Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios.

Joshua Conner (Crowe) and his wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) have three sons, now grown to manhood and having missed WWI, are itching now to serve King and Country fighting the Turks. Off they go to kill strangers.

While divining his land with rods, and digging a well, word comes that all three sons have fallen in battle. His wife, crushed by the loss of her boys, takes her life by drowning in a lake of water her husband has created.

Now, with nothing left at home, Connor sails to Istanbul, and finds rooms in a Turkish tourist hotel. With great difficulty, he rents a boat and bluffs his way onto the bleak burial ground to search for the bodies of his sons and bring their remains home.

The British, now wearied by war and the search for graves, think Connor to be a gentle looney. But when, after he wanders the beach using his heart and soul as diviners, much as he did when looking for water on his farm, he finds the exact spot where his boy’s bodies are buried in shallow sandy graves. There are two crosses now, but one is missing. The possibility that the last son had been taken prisoner pushes him forward, with the help of a defeated and bitter Turkish Major (Yilmaz Erdogan) who is a secret underground nationalist leader.

As Connor’s search spreads to distant areas, Crowe fills the screen with long stretches of realistic and horrifying battle flashbacks. Not since Spielberg’s “Private Ryan” has a director shown such graphic details. At the end of one horrendous day, the three brothers lie in the darkness, lit only by the blood red flares. What transpires here will haunt you long after you leave your seat.

Crowe may be just learning the art of directing, but after years of acting in films, he knows the value of filling the spaces around him with solid co-stars, most importantly, Olga Kurylenko as a Muslim widow who, with her imperious brother-in-law and small son, runs the tiny hotel in Istanbul. With his right hand, director Crowe gives us blood and tears, loss and pain. With his left, he dabs his canvas with the dappled light of a possible romance. Here he manipulates us with tender touches and candlelit glances.

“Water Diviner” is our basic action/adventure search film written in classical somber style. Here and there, there is the tender promise of damaged hearts reborn, and the hope that through the slaughter and horror, there will be, like the poppies on Flanders Field, scattered signs of a new and better tomorrow.

Ultimately, what we get is a beautiful “movie-movie” splendidly acted, gorgeously filmed. Crowe has all the tools of a A list director, and enough pockets of schmaltz to please the crowd, should he be called upon.

Once again cinematography rears its splendid head with the work of the late Andrew Lesnie, the Oscar winning cinematographer of “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Each frame is a tribute to his art.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.