Starring Paul Gross and Caroline Dhavernas. Rated 14A.
Canada has been trying to make a motion-picture tribute worthy of its homegrown Great War heroes for nigh on 90 years. And although Paul Gross’s Passchendaele might not be an entirely satisfactory resolution to this quest, it does come closer than any previous attempt.
Great film, it is not. Honourable effort, it most definitely is.
The story itself was, apparently, inspired by the most traumatic incident in Gross’s grandfather’s military career. The filmmaker (who also stars in the film he directed, wrote, and partially scored) tells the story of Michael Dunne, a brave but reluctant soldier who finds himself morally obliged to return to the very trenches that almost killed him some months earlier. Central to this is his love for Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas), a German-Canadian nurse who needs someone to watch over her asthmatic, guilt-ridden younger brother.
Along the way, the director manages to make a few digs at the hidebound British military establishment and to praise Canada’s success as Western Front shock troops. Unfortunately, his relatively modest budget only permitted the filmmaker to show small-unit actions in a movie named after a battle that caused more than 600,000 casualties on all sides. As for the frequent segues between sunny Alberta and shell-slashed Flanders, they can’t help but remind viewers of the unfortunate Legends of the Fall.
On the plus side, Gross does explore the interlocking myths of crucified Canadian soldiers and the murderous reprisals they allegedly inspired in a remarkably original way (even if the symbolism is, at times, a tad portentous).
So, no: Passchendaele probably won’t make you burst with pride. On the other hand, it will probably cause you to nod with quiet satisfaction.