Thursday, 6 November 2008

Passchendaele the film. . .

I saw this movie a week or two ago but wanted to let it sink in a bit before I posted my thoughts on it. I really, really wanted to like it more than I did because I admire Paul Gross's tenacity in getting the film made and what he accomplished on a mere $20 million budget (that's huge in Canadian movie-making terms) is fairly impressive. And it's an important part of Canadian history that deserves to be told and remembered.
Briefly (without giving too much away), the story centers around Michael Dunne, played by Gross, who is invalided out of the trenches suffering from shell shock, and in disgrace after going AWOL following his killing of a young German boy. Back in Calgary, now released from hospital, he is assigned to the recruitment office and he falls in love with his former nurse - the daughter of a German father who fought and died on the other side. When her brother enlists, even though he suffers from asthma, Dunne returns to the war to look after him and the movie ends with their experiences at the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the most horrific battles in terms of conditions and casualties.
So let me start with the good things. There are some incredible shots and beautiful cinematography. Again, given the small budget, the war scenes are some of the best I've ever seen in a WWI film - Gross really captured the mud, the rain, and the endless stretches of churned earth where, in one spectacular overhead shot, it's completely impossible to even see the demarcation of the two lines - it's just one horrific, grey stew of misery. And there's an ugly bit with a rat, but it was effective. I also admired how the script wasn't a one-dimensional story - it touched on a lot of different historical issues including anti-German sentiment on the homefront, the plight of boys not medically fit to fight, but recruited out of desperation as the war dragged on, the "myth" of the crucified Canadian soldier, and the complicated notions of atonement and duty. The acting is solid from the entire cast. The character of Sarah Mann, the nurse (played by Caroline Dhavernas), was wonderfully and sensitively drawn and not just a stereotypical love interest just randomly inserted. And there was one great line spoken by Michael in the trenches. It's pouring rain and mud and he turns to another soldier and says, "do you see any poets in this shit?" This is a good joke as Michael has re-enlisted under the pseudonym of McCrae - Canada's most famous war poet who penned "In Flanders Fields".
So why my reservations? Frustration mostly - because with so many good things going for it, Gross unfortunately resorted to so many cliches that they became extremely distracting. I don't mind a good love story in a war movie. I do object however, to a completely unrealistic and silly consummation scene that is just gratuitous. And the constantly repeated refrain of the film, "There's only one rule - don't die" was grating. I won't spoil the last half hour, but will only add that it's SO laden with over-the-top imagery that it's hard to tell which is the greater burden weighing on the soldiers - the symbolism or their heavy, mud-soaked uniforms and kits. Maybe the problem is that Gross is wearing too many hats - he wrote the script (based on stories from his own grandfather's experiences), directed, starred in, and produced the movie and some critical distance might have helped. Maybe the problem is that he had to do it all in order to get the film made.
Oh, it's worth seeing at least once. I just can't get my mind around how much better the film could have been. It'll be interesting to see if it gets any international releases. I can't see it showing in the U.S. even though the rest of the world has been bombarded with their military films. I can see that there might be some interest in England though. Canadian reviews have been mixed and while the movie isn't breaking any box office records, it seems to be doing respectably and was widely released across the country. I'll probably give it another viewing when it comes out on DVD.


_lethe_ said...

Great review!

I really like Paul Gross (big fan of Due South and Slings & Arrows), so I'm sorry to hear this film was disappointing. It sounds like he went all-out Hollywood with it.

It will no doubt be released in Belgium, so maybe also here in the Netherlands.

Blithe Spirit said...

Yes, I love Slings & Arrows too and Gross himself is probably the best reason to see the film - all the acting is very good.