The Craft of Writing: One Story Telling Error in The Water Diviner

The Water DivinerRecently, I shuffled out of my writer’s cave and went with a friend to see Russell Crowe’s debut directorial effort, The Water Diviner. The critics are split on how well he did:

It’s clear that Russell Crowe has poured his heart and soul into the historical romance The Water Diviner, his first feature as a director. If only the film were better.


Its journey of healing and self-discovery can be felt a century and a continent away.

There are other, less complementary quotes but I could see nothing wrong with his visual imagery, or the performance of the actors, and the themes were heart rending and poignant. So what is the problem? The storytelling itself.

“The Water Diviner” is an uneven effort by first-time director Russell Crowe, and the occasionally preposterous screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios doesn’t exactly help Crowe as director, either.

Personally, I don’t think it is fair to put it all on the scriptwriting. It’s the director that is the final storyteller. And what Crowe fails to do is to make the preposterous possible. At times as watchers, we lose our willing suspension of disbelief. And that is because Crowe sets up an image, and thinks that one image tells the whole story. And it does not.

For instance, in the first scene we see a battleground and titles in the left corner. And in the title were the terms ANZAC, Gallipoli and the year. My friend wrote me after the movie:

Unless I missed the information somehow, THE WATER DIVINER does not explain the abbreviation ANZAC.

Consequently, I googled the term. It means:

Australia New Zealand Army Corps

No, my friend did not miss anything. The term, which contained essential information, was never explained. Crowe forgot that, at least in America, we know nothing about Australia’s history. All we know is that the country grew from a prison colony. And that Nicole Kidman lives there. And for the SF fans of us, the uber awesome Farscape was filmed in Australia.

So, lacking context we are left hanging out there, trying to figure out what is going on while the battlefield explodes. The action centers on the enemy commander and his troops while they cross a battlefield full of death and destruction, only to find out that the ANZAC troops have retreated. We see the Australian ships moving off in the bay leaving the battle and their dead behind.

This is Crowe’s first set up for the movie, and for US audiences who haven’t taken an Australian history class, it’s a head scratcher.

What have we learned from this story error? Provide context for the action. It’s not enough that it happens. It’s okay to narrow on the action at first, but the storyteller needs to pull back and explain what just happened and why.

Crowe repeats this mistake in the next scene. We see Crowe’s character, in the Australian outback, dousing for water, finding a likely spot, and digging a well. We get the sense of the character, his stubbornness, determination and faith in his own abilities. But what is never explained is how his character became a douser. And seeing that dousing is not well understood by even people in the New Age community, the storyteller darn well better understand what he is showing people, and explain it. Because later, when Crowe stretches his dousing abilities to use it to find his dead children in a battlefield filled with bodies, we have nothing to help us make that leap with him. It’s not a matter of showing or telling. With magical elements, to reinforce the internal reality of your story’s actions, you have to show and tell.

This happens once again in reverse in another minor storytelling element where the female lead explains a bit of Turkish social communication to Crowe’s character. She explains that when men are courting women, if the woman approves of the match, she serves his coffee extra-sweet. “Here,” she says, “it’s all in the coffee.” So we are told of a little detail but we never see, not in detail anyway, what a normal cup of Turkish coffee looks like. And this could have been a bit of comedy too, in an otherwise very emotionally heavy movie. If you’ve never seen a cup of Turkish coffee, and most people in America haven’t, it is a thick mass of finely ground coffee with a bit of water in it. It just would be a priceless thing to see Crowe’s reaction to his first cup. When we do see in the last scene Crowe trying to stir the coffee we don’t really know whether this is a regular cup of coffee or an extra-sweetened one.

Show and tell.

So Mr. Crowe, while I love your story, please work on your storytelling skills. Because I can’t wait for your next film.

“The Water Diviner poster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –


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