Some reviews from the papers...
I got a bit of shock when I saw myself prominently quoted in a newspaper ad for Passchendaele with a one-line blurb: “Astonishing.” I didn’t remember being quite that keen on the film. But after looking up my advance piece on it in the magazine before its TIFF premiere, I located the quote: “. . . the graphic images of horror and futility on the battlefield are astonishing.” I stand by that. But battle scenes make up less than half the movie, and I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the rest of it. In what amounts to a big-screen war memorial, Paul Gross—Passchendaele’s writer, director, producer and star—has done an admirable job of drawing attention to an under-heralded chapter of Canadian military history in a war that is sadly fading from the national heritage. He conveys the nightmare of that battle with real eloquence.
As docudrama, in other words, the film has power. But in trying to forge a Canadian alternative to gung-ho stereotype of Hollywood heroism, Gross has forged a construct that’s equally far-fetched. His character is no Rambo; his glory does not come from the barrel of a gun. But he turns out to be a kind of Captain Canuck Christ figure, dedicated to the salvation of a weaker comrade and performing a stunt of magic-realist peace-keeping in the thick of battle.
The problem is, the film begins with him stabbing a helpless young German soldier for no good reason, suggesting his character, Michael Dunne, has a dark side. But aside from a stray reference to him once robbing a bank, that darkness is never sustained or explored. Between tours of duty, as Dunne falls in love on the Albertan home front, he’s too good to be true. Gross is most appealing when he gives free reign to his sly wit and rogue malevolence—the subversive Gross we saw in Slings and Arrows. But between the telegraphic script and the gleaming performance, his character in Passchendaele feels too carefully honed. At times I felt he was running for office in some imaginary election.
Passchendaele: Testament to Canada's sacrifices
Paul Gross's tale of love and war a realistic depiction of the battle fought in the hell of the Belgian plains
Unabashedly romantic while also unyielding in its horrific images of World War I, Passchendaele succeeds on two fronts.
As both romantic drama and vivid testament to history, the film is designed to appeal to a wide audience while providing a needed reminder of Canada's sacrifices during "the Great War."
Paul Gross acquits himself well in the ambitious triple tasks of writer, director and lead actor.
He's made a major step up from his 2002 directing debut Men With Brooms, shifting gracefully from a small comedy to the big-budget drama that is Passchendaele.
The Alberta shoot involved upwards of 200 actors and the logistical nightmare of recreating the muddy hell of the Belgian plains where both battle and film draw their name.
Passchendaele was one of the signal conflicts of the First World War, causing 16,000 Canadian casualties (with 5,000 dead) amongst the 310,000 Allied casualties (with 140,000 deaths) during the fall of 1917.
The event defined a still-young Canadian Confederation, uniting people from sea to shining sea in common cause, yet it's barely known or understood by many people today.
Gross hopes to rectify this situation with Passchendaele. The film realistically depicts the savagery of a trench battle in which combatants often resorted to hand-to-hand combat, after their tanks and other machines became mired in the mud.
While honouring the sacrifice of Canada's troops, Gross is careful not to impart a pro-war message. Indeed, his heroic character, Sgt. Michael Dunne, is conflicted by the need to use violence to achieve peace: "It's something we do all the time because we're good at it." (Dunne is named for Gross's maternal grandfather, who fought in the First World War and inspired his grandson to make Passchendaele.)
Putting the passion into Passchendaele
The multihyphenate Paul Gross gets lot of credits on his new film, Passchendaele: director, writer, star and composer, to which he could add: Seeker of the elusive grail of Canadian popular taste.
Budgeted at $20-million, Passchendaele is considered the most expensive home-financed Canadian film ever, but its ambitions are considerably grander than the movie's modest (by Hollywood standards) budget. Gross's model would seem to be no less than Titanic, combining historical disaster with a lush, romantic love story. The Passchendaele poster manages to combine Titanic and Band of Brothers. Events from the 1917 battle of the title, which saw 16,000 Canadians killed among more than a half-million dead in the quagmire of the Belgian countryside, are contrasted with a love story set against beautiful vistas of the Alberta foothills. Heroic deeds, doomed love and self-sacrifice are the ingredients of an old-fashioned weepie, mixed with a more modern depiction of the squalor and brutality of war.
Passchendaele opens with an attention-grabbing war scene in France, where Sergeant Michael Dunne (Gross) sees his platoon mates torn apart by machine-gun fire. He single-handedly takes out the German gun nest but finds one German youth alive and unarmed: In an angry impulse, he stabs the boy through the forehead with his bayonet. His own mindless brutality is as traumatic to Michael as the artillery shell that blows him into the air a moment later. He's sent home to recover from his wounds and shell shock.
The movie is a sincere but awkward patchwork of hits and misses as it tries to blend wide-canvas history with personal intimacy. The well-orchestrated battle scenes that bookend the film are much more interesting than the small-town tale of romance and community conflict that occupies its long middle. As the central couple, Gross, handsome and cocky, and Quebec-born actress Caroline Dhavernas, as the plucky and winsome Sarah, make a reasonably appealing pair but most of the people around them are one-dimensional, cut-out characters.
Even if it's not a particularly good movie, Passchendaele can't be dismissed as a cultural phenomenon. The film offers the kind of heart-on-sleeve inspiration that some contemporary politicians are calling for (the Alberta government coughed up more than a quarter of the budget, apparently on the film's heritage merits). Gross, who made his reputation as the star and co-writer of the nineties' hit television series Due South, and later created the film comedy Men with Brooms (2002), has become Canada's designated populist entertainer.
Passchendaele (2.5 stars)
The opening-night film is epic and sweeping but a tad overwrought, spending its middle 70 minutes or so in Calgary, following the tentative romance between a First World War soldier, shellshocked and discharged, and a nurse nursing a secret (Caroline Dhavernas). The opening 15 minutes present the war Saving Private Ryan style, all blood and mud. The film’s final act features the battle of Passchendaele, when Canadians proved their mettle and earned the nickname “storm trooper” from the German soldiers. Cross-cutting between Calgary and the battle might have livened the film, which also labours under a leaden script; people don’t talk so much as lob speeches at one another.