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A Tale From the Trenches Passchen-ately Told
Member Name: Hishyeness
Advantages: Beautifully shot, educational, engaging and unexpectedly good.
Disadvantages: Gross struggles at times to bring peripheral characters to life.
It's not often that I take a chance on a film solely on the strength of the cover of the DVD, especially when it features a relatively unknown cast and obscure subject matter, but on a recent trip to the DVD shop, I was struggling to find a film to make up a four for a tenner rental offer.
As a history buff, I know much more about the Second World War than the first, but while browsing the shelves, something about the name "Passchendaele" rang some bells. I read the blurb with interest, especially after seeing the film had won some awards, and seeing it was set during the Great War, decided it was worth a punt.
The Battle of Passchendaele, named after a small town near Ypres in Belgium, was one of major engagements of World War One, and took place on the fields of Western Flanders between June and November 1917. The battle was fought between British and Commonwealth troops (Canada, Australia and New Zealand were heavily represented) and the Germans, and was representative of the misery and attrition of trench warfare at its very worst.
The thick, clinging mud and the seemingly endless rain and damp were constant companions to the troops who fought for months on end, pounded both physically and mentally by merciless and unrelenting artillery fire. The monotony was only broken by sporadic sorties across the lines against well-defended positions, with very little hope of a breakthrough.
There was no rhyme or reason why some survived and some did not - the randomness of death was a fact of life. It may have made a difference if there was something tangible for the soldiers to fight for, but Passchendaele is also synonymous with the futility of the conflict as a whole - after five months of fighting, the Allies gained five (5) kilometres of ground at the cost of an estimated 200,000 lives (60,000 of which were Canadian) - and promptly gave it all back, unopposed, just three short months later.
The main war scenes of the film concentrate on the efforts of the Canadian Corps, who had a central role in second phase of the battle between 26th October to 10th November 1917, and were primarily responsible for capturing the town of Passchendaele and ending the campaign.
This Canadian film is directed by, and stars Paul Gross, perhaps best known for his stint as everyone's favourite Canadian Mountie in the TV series Due South. It tells the story of the conflict through the eyes and experiences of a battle-hardened veteran who is apparently suffering from shell shock, the nurse he falls in love with, and her naïve brother.
The film opens in France, with Sergeant Michael Dunne (Paul Gross) leading a squad of Canadian soldiers against an entrenched German machine gun nest. In the ensuing firefight, a number of his men are critically injured and he decides to raise a white flag to retrieve them. In those days, a code of honour and chivalry still existed between the ordinary men who fought these family squabbles between kings and princes, and it was not unusual for a temporary truce to be called for each side to tend to their wounded.
Tragically, a misunderstanding between a nervous new recruit and his callow German counterpart with an itchy trigger finger shatters the momentary peace, and the Germans open fire on the defenseless Canadians. Against the odds, Dunne manages to overrun the enemy position and finds that the young German who opened fire on his comrades is the only survivor - wounded and terrified - but very much alive. The events of the next few minutes change Dunne forever - physically, mentally and emotionally.
The film picks up in a Calgary hospital many weeks later and we find that Dunne has been decorated for his bravery and has healed of his physical injuries. He also falls in love with a pretty and enigmatic nurse, Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas), that has been tending to his wounds. Despite the obvious chemistry between them, she refuses his advances, citing a personal rule that she doesn't go out with soldiers.
Despite his hero status, we soon find out that he actually walked off the battlefield against orders - an act of desertion punishable by death - and all that is saving him from execution are a few benevolent colleagues who are willing to maintain the fiction that he is mentally unsuited to returning to the front. Instead, he is given a job as a local recruitment officer for the war effort.
In this role, he meets David Mann (Joe Dinicol) - a young lad desperate to join the army, but who is prevented from doing so because he suffers from chronic asthma. Dunne quickly establishes that Sarah is David's sister, which gives him the opportunity to call on her, and also ensure - because he wants to protect the boy - that David cannot enlist. We are also introduced to a jobsworth British officer, Randolph Dobson-Hughes, who takes an instant dislike to Dunne due to his apparent "cowardice" and becomes something of a nemesis to him.
With the stage set, the film initially concentrates on the budding relationships between the main characters as they settle into their new roles in Alberta, before a series of unexpected events soon forces each of them to make some hard decisions about their futures and each other, all of which are brought to a head during the eponymous battle.
THE MAIN PLAYERS
> Paul Gross (Sergeant Michael Dunne)
It's hard to shake the image of Gross in his red Mountie uniform as Constable Benton Fraser in "Due South", a TV series that is now over ten (10) years old. However, to pun badly, that would be Grossly unfair. He is much better known in his native Canada, more for his acting than directing (this is only his second effort) but on the strength of this film - on both sides of the camera - he has a decent future ahead of him.
He plays Dunne with a quiet dignity, conviction and strength, inhabiting the character like a second skin. It's no wonder, as Michael Dunne - the war hero - was not only an actual person, he was Gross' real-life grandfather. As such, this film unsurprisingly comes across as labour of love. Despite the fact that it is on record as being the most expensive Canadian film ever made ($20m USD) it has an intimacy that could only have come with his knowledge of the first-hand accounts that his grandfather shared with him.
> Caroline Dhavernas (Sarah Mann)
Dhavernas, a French-Canadian actress, has one of those faces that you know you have seen somewhere but can't quite place. She is little known outside her native country, but has an impressive portfolio of French-language films and TV appearances to her credit. She imbues the conflicted but principled Nurse Mann with a steely determination with more than a hint of feminine vulnerability. I enjoyed watching her in this role, and the developing relationship between herself and Dunne is one of the highlights of the film. It never gets mawkish or overly sentimental , and that's a credit to the two leads.
> Joe Dinicol (David Mann)
Although we spend a decent amount of time with him, David is possibly the least developed of the main characters. He is brash, determined like his sister, and consumed with a burning sense of injustice and misplaced patriotism. His actions throughout the film provide the catalyst for some of the major plot developments, so you can't help but think he is more of a vehicle for Gross to progress the story than someone he genuinely wants us to be interested in. As such, he can be hard to empathise with at times, but that said, Dinicol does a decent job of bringing the young man to life.
The film was not at all what I thought it would be. Part drama, part war film and part romance, If it were a stage play, it would be easy to break down into three distinct acts held together by the developing back story. The acting is not exceptional, but it is believable, and the leads do well enough to help you emotionally connect with their characters.
Gross leads us on a three separate journeys of personal redemption within the context of a defining moment in Canadian (and World) history, an event that ultimately threatens to consume the characters he employs to tell the story. In acting and directing, Gross tries to find a delicate balance between telling the intimate, personal stories of this trio, with conveying the much wider story of the experiences of soldiers who fought in the trenches.
In my view, this is where the film falls down a bit - Gross is clearly comfortable with what he knows - in other words, the personal story of his grandfather - but struggles a bit in addressing the bigger picture. He captures the detail, mood and atmosphere of the period very well, but apart from the lead characters, you don't really get a feel for the ordinary soldier. That's what makes this film simply quite good, rather than exceptional.
However, the relatively minor shortfall in acting and directing talent is more than made up for by the cinematography. It is a beautifully shot movie (most of the filming was done in Alberta) with some stunning scenes of the Canadian Rockies. These vibrant images provide a startlingly contrast to the grey, bleak. desolate and war-scarred landscape of the Flanders fields later in the film.
The battlefield scenes are exceptional, and really bring home the physical conditions that soldiers had to endure during World War One. By all accounts, Gross was almost obsessive in ensuring historical accuracy for his battlefield scenes. I was sufficiently intrigued by the film to make a quick trip to the film's web-site (www.passchendaelethemovie.com) and its entry at www.imbd.com, where there is much more fascinating information about the film, its background, the history and its stars, which, in the interests of brevity I have not included here (I know, don't laugh!).
The last known British veteran of Passchendaele was Private Harry Patch, who passed away last year at the venerable age of one hundred and eleven (111!) and even if this film concentrates solely on the courageous Canadian Corps, it brings his personal sacrifice and bravery into sharper focus.
PRICE & AVAILABILITY
As this was a DVD rental, this is a film only review. However, a quick survey on-line shows the film is widely available from a variety of well-known e-tailers for around £7.98 on DVD and £12.98 on Blu-Ray - a steal on either format. The film, which runs for around 110 minutes, is classified as a 15 (fifteen), which, given the graphic battle scenes is well justified.
I thoroughly enjoyed Passchendaele. Although I picked it up expecting a war movie from start to finish, I was pleasantly surprised that it contained a fair bit of back story and human interest away from the front line. Despite the blood, guts and gore in the more visceral and brutal battle scenes, there are enough engaging moments - especially in the relationships between the main protagonists and the parts of the story based in Canada - to give this film a much wider appeal.
© Hishyeness 2010
Summary: A very good Canadian film that deserves wider exposure and recognition.