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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Passchendaele (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Paul Gross
Starring: Paul Gross, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Dinicol

Passchendaele is a better movie than I thought it would be - but now would probably be an appropriate time to mention that when I saw the trailer for it, the first movie it made me think of was Pearl Harbor, so there was really nowhere to go but up. I'm really torn about this movie, which is so good in some respects, but so disappointing in others.

Paul Gross stars (and writes and directs and produces) as Michael Dunne, a shell shocked sergeant sent back to the homefront to recover and act as a recruiting agent. He develops a connection with a nurse, Sarah (Caroline Dhavernas), which inspires him to make it his job to ensure that her asthmatic brother, David (Joe Dinicol), is unable to enlist and go overseas. However, David is involved in a relationship with the daughter of the local doctor, who sees an opportunity to rid himself of an unsuitable suitor by giving him the clean bill of health he needs to get into uniform. When David goes over, Dunne finagles his way back to the front to keep an eye on him. Both men are amongst those sent to take Passchendaele in a bloody, muddy and, as the note at the end of the film reminds us, ultimately futile battle.

There's some good stuff here, but I'm not sure that it belongs all together in one movie. The battle scenes are outstanding, especially when the firefight at Passchendaele degenerates into hand-to-hand combat, a scene which underscores just how insane the whole concept of war really is. The chaos of the battle scenes combined with scenes in which military higher-ups are attempting to strategize while shells are blowing out the walls of their command centre, make for the film's strongest sequence. I would have liked to see more of this movie but, despite the title, the battle for Passchendaele doesn't actually occupy that much of the story.

In the homefront section of the story there are a couple of plot threads which have potential but aren't fully and satisfactorily explored. I liked that the film used Sarah and David to touch on a very real offshoot of warfare, which is the overzealous patriotism and xenophobia that can lead to people turning on their neighbors. Sarah and David are of German descent and at the war's outset their father broke with the family to fight on the German side. Even though they've denounced their father's actions, their house is vandalized, they're treated with scorn by their neighbors, and there's the vague threat that they'll end up in an internment camp. This is the sort of thing that actually happened and I wish that the film had explored it more deeply rather than folding it in as a plot contrivance. There's another thread (even more briefly touched on) which has to do with Sarah's addiction to morphine, something not unheard of amongst WWI nurses and doctors.

If I had to pinpoint my exact problem with this movie, I suppose it would be this: while I have no issue with Gross' acting or direction, I really wish that he had given someone else a pass at writing the screenplay, which is just so heavy-handed. I'm a little reluctant to rag on this because I know that this film was a labor of love for him, but when you produce, write and direct a movie in which you cast yourself as a character that is none too subtly equated with Jesus - complete with a trek across the battlefield while wounded and carrying a cross - it does start to feel like you kind of need to get over yourself and when you make the audience feel that way, it really deflates the impact of the final moments. For my part, when the film reached its conclusion I didn't feel sad as much as I did annoyed at the fact that instead of Passchendaele a more appropriate title would have been The Passion of Paul Gross.


Ryan McNeil said...

Well-said...couldn't agree with you more.

I actually saw a TV spot for it recently that was completely built around the battle footage and when it ended I remembered thinking "Holy crap - that looks like a totally different movie!"

Pity too since it's such a good idea for a flick.

Anh Khoi Do said...

Although I found the movie quite average and I agree with you that Gross should have given the task of scriptwriting to someone else. As I wrote it, Gross doesn't seem to have the sense of priority when dealing with the movie's plots. In fact, the love story is so stretched that Gross, without probably noticing it, inserted some scenes that are too corny. Therefore, in the parts of the home front, more focus could have been given to the xenophobia that Canadians of German heritage faced and the social pressure on young men to join the army for instance. However, if we look on the bright side, the movie is relatively entertaining (the fight scene at the end was worth the price of my theatre ticket) and I'm sure that when it will be released on DVD, the special features should live up to my expectations since I'm a History student.