Dir: Paul Gross. Canada. 2008. 114mins
Anyone confronting the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War has to acknowledge the long shadows cast by seminal classics All Quiet On The Western Front and Paths Of Glory. Paul Gross’s ambitious Passchendaele doesn’t try to compete. Instead, the writer-producer-director-star chooses to focus on an Ernest Hemingway-style tale of love and war. Unashamedly old-fashioned and resolutely middle-brow, it unfolds in broad brushstrokes storytelling and heart-on-the-sleeve emotions before bursting into effective scenes of the mud and mayhem of battle. It has the sentimentality of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan but without the guts.
Said to be the most expensive Canadian production ever, Passchendaele should strike a chord on home territory where patriotism, a Toronto opening slot and Gross’s profile will combine to ensure solid returns. Internationally, it lacks the cutting edge or star names that might have made it an epic attraction.
Thoroughly respectable but entirely predictable, Passchendaele reduces one of the key battles in the First World War to a very personal level. A shell-shocked veteran, Sergeant Michael Dunne (Gross) returns home to Canada where he is assigned to help in the on-going recruitment drive. He finds himself attracted to his angelic nurse Sarah (De Havernas), a morphine addict of German parentage. The film’s central section depicts a romance that blossoms in soft-focus sunlight and picture postcard locations before tasting the bitter edge of home front prejudice. Sarah’s young brother David (Dinicol) is an asthmatic whose condition prevents him serving his country. Desperate to prove his worth, he uses a fraudulent medical certificate to enlist. Michael feels he has no option but to follow him and protect him from harm. Both men are on the front line of Passchendaele, a battle that claimed 600,000 casualties on both sides.
Passchandeale is a carefully orchestrated, deeply romantic weepie in which Gross works hard to tug at the heart strings. Impossible love, noble acts and heroic self-sacrifice all pile up to make resistance futile. There even seems to be a touch of slow-motion in one of the big love scenes and a soaring Celine Dion-style ballad (co-written by Gross) to send the viewer out with a tear in their eye. It is not a film for the cynical but there is no denying its sincerity or craftsmanship.
De Havernas lends a touch of steel to the role of Sarah and Dinicol is convincingly high strung and coltish as David. Gross himself is capable as the central character, trying to catch something of the strong silent types that were once the preserve of Gary Cooper although a more charismatic or bankable performer might have helped the film’s commercial prospects internationally. His skills as a director are more impressive especially during the final twenty minutes of battle in which the struggle for survival is reduced to hand-to-hand fighting involving bayonets, rocks and anything that might be used to take a life.
Damberger Film And Cattle Company
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Jan AC Kaczmarek
Caroline De Havernas