Plot: Shell shocked Sergeant Dunne (Paul Gross) is sent home to Calgary to recuperate after being injured in battle. He’s reassigned to an enlistment center where he encounters a young wannabe soldier named David Mann (Joe Dinicol) who’s been refused entry due to his severe asthma. Meanwhile- Dunne falls in love with David’s sister- morphine addicted nurse, Sarah (Caroline Dhavernas). After learning of the Dunn’s German ancestry- the town quickly turns on the family. Soon, the hot-headed David turns to the corrupt head of the draft board in order to enlist despite his disability- leading Dunne to re-enlist himself so that he can protect David in battle. Soon- the two are sent to Passchendaele…
Review: In recent years, there haven’t really been a lot of big WW1 movies. Most war films these days are either about WW2, Vietnam, or Iraq- the last big WW1 film I can remember is A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT, from back in 2004. When I heard Canada’s own Paul Gross was going to make a large scale film about the battle of PASSCHENDAELE- I was excited.
Every Canadian high-schooler learns about the story of that epic battle in our compulsory Canadian History class. The Canadian Corps took Passchendale after three months of intense fighting, at the cost of 140,000 lives, and was one of the costliest battles in the war. In many ways, it was the Canadian equivalent of the infamous Battle of Gallipoli- which was itself turned into great film years ago by the great Australian filmmaker, Peter Weir. Alas- Gross is no Weir…
Considering Gross’ background- I wonder what made him think he was capable of staging such a massively scaled film. A couple of years ago, he directed a fairly popular little sleeper called MEN WITH BROOMS- which unlike a lot of Canadian films actually turned a profit. The thing is- MEN WITH BROOMS was about Curling and not one of the bloodiest battles in WW1.
To be fair to Gross- his heart is in the right place. He obviously is trying to make a film to honor our fallen Canadian heroes, but the result is something that feels way too- for lack of a better word- CBC. Gross is actually quite good in the film- but he should have stuck to acting and not tried to write, direct & produce the project as well.
The big reason the project fails is that the film is simply too ambitious for its own good. If Gross had stuck to making a gritty War film, it might have been successful. The battle scenes are impressively staged- albeit marred by way too much overly dramatic music. His film really begins to falter about twenty minutes in, where Gross’ Dunne is sent back to Calgary to recuperate. The film spends too much time on the home front trying to show what the frame of mind was back home, while the young men went off to fight. This is a big problem is a film that runs less than two hours, because they spend so much time on this part of the story that the war scenes almost feel tacked on.
I also had a big problem with some of the acting. While Gross & his love interest, Caroline Dhavernas were good, everyone else was a little off- particularly Joe Dinicol, who is thoroughly unlikable and whiny throughout and at times, overacts wildly. Towards the end I was literally cringing every time he came onscreen.
Another huge problem with the film is the climax, which really lays it on thick, particularly in the Judeo-Christian imagery department. At one point, we literally see Gross carry a crucifix on his shoulder across “no man’s land” (all in slow motion of course), while he writhes in agony. And then- for some icing on the cake- we get a big power ballad a la TITANIC over the end credits! FROMAGE!
I feel like a really miserable SOB writing such a harsh review of the biggest film to come out of my country in years- but the truth must be told. Gross’ heart is in the right place here- but he was simply not cut out to tackle such a hugely ambitious project. While I imagine it will do fairly well up here in Canada, there’s no way this film will ever make it anywhere else. Hopefully one day, a worthy film about the battle will be made- but this is not it.