MOVIE: Passchendaele (2008)

As with Harry Connick Jr. from yesterday’s review of New in Town, it probably goes without saying that I’m an absolutely ridiculous fan of Paul Gross.   Due South to start with, of course, and then Slings & Arrows to do me in completely.  And even though I couldn’t get into Eastwick this season on TV, it wasn’t because of him.  I love this man.  I love him.  I love him.  I love him.  If he asked me to get down on my knees and kiss his feet, I would do it and love it and only feel the tiniest bit like a schmuck later.

And that’s why, when I heard he’d made a WWI movie that had been released in Canada to fairly respectable reviews, I couldn’t wait to see it.  I tried to wait, I failed.  They kept not releasing it here in the U.S. and I kept wanting them to and they kept not, so I finally caved and made an end-run around the problem.  I will make it up to the problem just as soon as the problem lets me, though, I swear.

Now let me tell you how absolutely gut-wrenching it’s going to be for me to write the rest of this review.  Because, oh GOD, my gut is wrenched that I have to do this.  Monkey wrenched, in fact.  Socket wrenched.  Because this film, which was written, directed, and stars Paul Gross, is pretty unbearably awful.   And you know what the problem is?  The problem is, it’s just exactly as self-indulgent as a film written, directed, and starring the same guy sounds like it would be.  Goddamn it.  Ow, my guts, I hate you.

Let me ‘splain.

As the story opens, Gross’s character (Michael Dunne), is in Europe fighting in a battle in which he finds himself face-to-face with a German soldier who couldn’t possibly be older than about 17.  Despite the fact the kid had surrendered, Dunne makes the decision to kill him, and before he even has a chance to process that, he’s blown up by a grenade.

He wakes up back in Canada in a hospital where he’s being tended to by a pretty nurse named Sarah Mann (the wonderful Caroline Dhavernas, who some of you might recognize from the series Wonderfalls).  Of course, he falls in love with her, and she with him.  After he’s recovered, he takes a job in town as a recruiter, ostensibly because he’s a hero, but everybody knows it’s actually because of a diagnosis of shell-shock — something they all translate internally as “cowardice.”

Long story short, Sarah’s younger brother, who has terrible asthma, decides he wants to enlist and go fight, and he gets someone to forge his paperwork for him so he can head off to war.  Madly in love with his sister, Michael feels he has no choice but to follow her brother back into battle so he can protect him.  And, of course, madly in love with Michael and terrified for her brother, Sarah feels she has no choice but to join the two of them as a nurse on the battlefront.  So, the next thing we know, we’re all of us back in Europe with stuff exploding over our heads and a whole heck of a lot of misery and awfulness.

Now, quick — the things this movie does well:

I liked that so much of the movie was set in Canada instead of in battle, focusing more on some of the emotional complexities the war had both on returning soldiers and the men who were not allowed to fight in the first place.  I knew the movie was going to have to move back to the actual war at some point (because the title refers to the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium in 1917, which you can read more about here), but I enjoyed the way this movie gives us a little time to get some insight on the many emotional elements of war for men, as well as, to a lesser degree, the politics of recruitment.

I also really liked the actual battle scenes themselves — in Passchendaele, Michael and his platoon find themselves forced to dig into trenches, as was typical during WWI.  Only, it had been pouring down rain for months and their trenches end up being more like swampy swimming pools than holes.  Shots of these men and boys literally waist-deep in mud brought home the horror of trench warfare in a way no other movie I’ve seen about that really has.  My god.  No wonder so many WWI soldiers died of diseases instead of bullets.  I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.  I get cranky when it rains here in Seattle and I’ve forgotten my umbrella.  At least I can still keep my socks (and matches) dry.

But now, and I hate this part, I really do, but here’s what this movie does really, really badly:  ALMOST EVERYTHING ELSE.

Put simply, the number one flaw of this movie is that it just tries WAY too hard.  Gross obviously feels extremely passionate and proud about Canada’s involvement in WWI, and he’s also obviously seen just about every brilliant war movie ever made.  He knows that brilliant, powerful war stories involve things like imagery, motivational speeches, love that may or may not be totally doomed, and the shock of the violence the Everyman is forced to take part in just to survive.

But in trying to incorporate every one of those elements into his own film, he just couldn’t pull it off.  He didn’t seem to understand what makes each of those elements truly powerful — the emotions behind them, the meaning behind them.  His imagery, for example, focused heavily on the concept of martyrdom (Jesus on the cross, especially) and birds, especially birds of prey.  But there wasn’t any actual MEANING to those images.  The martyrs were not martyrs.  And the  birds — the birds made no real sense at all.  It was like he thought “imagery” simply means repetition of a visual.  But the visuals have to be representative of something; they can’t just hang out and be all, hey, it’s me again, hi.  Know what I mean?

And the speeches, oh man.  They were just painfully vacuous, I’m sorry, Paul.  Delivered with such poignant tone, and yet without any actual power whatsoever.    I’m not even going to talk about the total lack of chemistry between Gross and Dhavernas, either.  It just crushed me.  It seriously did.  It was that painful to watch.  If only he’d cast me instead.  Seriously.  That would’ve been some third-year P-Chem, let me tell you.

In any case, are just SO many things about this movie that do not work.  It struck me as disastrously amateurish and was ultimately completely without impact.  There were some good ideas in there, but Gross needed to pass his script along to a pro when he was done with it and get some better thinkers involved.  As it stands, it seemed like the kind of script I would’ve written in high school, when I tried to make all my writing sound “deep,” without any real comprehension of what “deep” truly was.

Lordy.  This is what I get for pirating a video.  And now I have to buy it when it comes out just to assuage my guilt.  Damn.  I am so not thankful for that.  (But hey, to all my American readers:  Happy Thanksgiving!)

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre:  War, Drama
Cast:  Paul Gross, Caroline Dhavernas, Adam Harrington, Joe Dinicol, Michael Greyeyes

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16 Responses to “MOVIE: Passchendaele (2008)”

  1. Sarah Says:

    I saw this in a PACKED theater in Vancouver, and afterwards we all had to fill out comment cards – I guess they were trying to decide whether or not to subject the rest of the world to it. I ripped the movie a new a-hole on my comment card so that I could prevent it from being released internationally. I tried to save you, Meg Wood, I tried!

  2. megwood Says:

    You are a true friend to the world, Fobes.

  3. kellyr Says:

    You know, I read everything up until you started describing the movie, and while I trust your judgment impeccably, I had to stop because I knew I would have to watch this for myself. And since I know it will be bad, I might as well be surprised. Christ, I actually watched all episodes of Eastwick. But how many times do I get to watch Paul Gross in America (not counting anytime I want to thanks to owning Due South dvds)?

  4. megwood Says:

    “And since I know it will be bad, I might as well be surprised” — Oh god, that made me laugh. Awesome. Let me know what you think after you see it!!

  5. Liz Says:

    I really admire your honesty, Meg (even if you did see this movie “illegally”). If you had just blindly said, “I love Paul Gross, so anything he does is automatically good,” I would have lost respect for your integrity (of which you have a lot!) Also, I might have been a bit more skeptical about your reviews in general. Now I’m even more sure that, even if our tastes might sometimes differ, you’re always honest (and articulate!) in your opinions.

    I didn’t hate “Eastwick” (it did seem a little like “Charmed”), and it was kind of fun watching Paul Gross being evil. But when I read that it had already been canceled, I decided not to try to see any more episodes. (It wasn’t THAT good!)

    “Dollhouse” has also been canceled, but hubby and I are going to see the rest of the episodes – because we both actually like it! I think there’s hope for him, because he likes “Three Rivers” too! Now if I could just get him to like zombies…..

  6. megwood Says:

    Thanks, Lizzie, darlin’!

  7. Barb Says:

    I’ve been addicted to PG ever since DS as well, and I bought the movie becuase I like him and Caroline Davernas as well. I watched the whole thing once, and now I just fast forward to the romance parts.

    I was in Ypres this summer and it’s amazing to think of all the crap that happened there since now it’s so peaceful and beautiful.

  8. Dee Says:

    Gee Meg, I think you were a little hard on “Passchendaele”. Maybe you should watch it again. (You can purchase it from amazon.ca even if you are outside of Canada.) I thought Paul Gross and Caroline Dhavernas had terrific chemistry. In fact, I thought their kiss in the boarding house was one of the most beautiful kisses I’ve ever seen captured on film.

    And how can you say that the imagery of the cross was without meaning? When we see David Mann on the cross at the end of the movie and then the camera moves up to show the pock-marked and muddy earth below it symbolizes the sacrifice of an entire generation of young men (on both sides) all for what? For a few yards of muddy ground. It’s a devastating image that really brings home the futility and waste of war. And Dunne’s carrying David on the cross symbolizes his own need for redemption through self-sacrifice. This scene has been much maligned but I thought it was powerful and beautiful and yes, I’ll say it, deep.

    And what was so terrible about the speeches? I was thinking about Dunne’s speach to David (after they’ve both fallen down the cliff and into the river) for days after I saw the film. He’s talking about having crossed a line and still feeling like he’s living over there (in the war) and not wanting David to ever be able to understand (through first-hand knowledge) what he’s talking about. And David doesn’t understand him. Because that’s how people (not actors in movies providing elucidation) speak. We have interactions with other people and we don’t really understand each other. How can we, not having shared the same experiences?

    I think the major problem with “Passchendaele” is that it wasn’t what people were expecting it to be. Paul Gross fans went in expecting to see ‘Fraser Goes To War’; war movie buffs went in expecting to see more carnage and more tactics and less about the homefront. A lot of Canadians went in hoping to see Canada’s answer to a Hollywood blockbuster. Very few people went in with an open mind and saw it for what it is: a tender love story and a movie about people at a specific place and during a specific time. Paul Gross has said in interviews that he just wanted to understand people like his grandfather who fought in WWI and get a feel for what life was like for them. And I think he succeeded in that very well.

  9. megwood Says:

    I definitely wasn’t interested in Fraser Goes to War OR in more carnage (in fact, as I said, the one element of this film I did like was the fact so much of it took place on the homefront). I was interested in good writing and original storytelling. That’s where it all fell down for me. I stand by my review — I thought it was unsophisticated. I appreciate Gross’s passion for the story, and his emotion for his grandfather, and I think in the hands of a stronger writer, this could’ve been a really great film. In his hands, though, it just. . . wasn’t. It wasn’t, I’m sorry.

    I’m really glad you enjoyed it, though. I know many people did! It just clearly failed to impact me to the same degree it appears to have impacted you. Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that. We’s diff’rent, is all. Thank you for your comments! It’s great to have someone post here who really liked the film and had a lot to say about it — a good counterbalance to my review and one I think will help others decide if it’s worth a look or not.

  10. megwood Says:

    A: Callum Keith Rennie!
    B: Making fun of Mounties! (Oh, irony! Sweet love.)

    SOLD! Thanks for the head’s up Dee!

  11. Dee Korich Says:

    Hi again! I just can’t help myself – I gotta beat the horse even though he’s long dead – because I watched “Passchendaele” again last night and I just feel it’s one of the most powerful and beautiful films I’ve ever seen! I don’t want to rehash the points you and I have already made, but I do want to address your comments regarding the symbolism of the birds, especially the birds of prey.

    I’ve been a bit confused by the birds myself, mostly because I couldn’t figure out how the scene of Michael walking in Calgary and seeing the birds fly past the church fit in with the scenes at the beginning and end of the kestrel soaring up to the sky. But seeing the film again last night made it clear to me: I think the Calgary bird scene is simply a trigger for Michael to remember what happened in France when he killed the boy. We already know that Michael has PTSD that’s been triggered in other instances (at the doctor’s lecture, at the recruitment meeting), so it would make sense that seeing a familiar visual like that might send him back to the war in his mind. The next shot after the birds is of Michael looking reflective.

    As for the scene at the beginning, after Michael kills the boy and is knocked off his feet by the mortar round he sees the kestrel soaring in front of the altar and up toward the sky. I believe this is an invocation for choosing the “good path” as Christ did. Sarah is tied to this symbol because early on Michael says that when he sees her he feels like a kestrel is beating his wings inside his chest and he calls her ‘kestrel’ because he doesn’t know her name. Sarah – and Michael’s love for her – is the vehicle through which Michael follows Christ’s example of love and self-sacrifice. He loves Sarah, so he’s willing to sacrifice himself to save her brother and in so doing atone for his actions in France. He is reminded of this duty when his strength fails as he’s carrying David back across no-man’s land and he looks up and sees the kestrel again soaring toward the heavens. This gives him the strength to continue.

    OK, I feel better now. Thanks for indulging me! I’m willing to bet “Gunless” will be less controversial!

  12. megwood Says:

    That was a WONDERFUL analysis, Dee. Thank you so much for taking the time to add that here! I will definitely watch the film again with all of this in mind. You are a lovely thinker.

  13. Dee Says:

    Aw, shucks! I think it’s actually Paul Gross who is the lovely thinker, but thank you. I could site many scenes in “Men With Brooms” (yes, that silly and sometimes raunchy curling comedy) that demonstrate a similar compassion and love for human kind that Paul displays in “Passchendaele”. It’s been fun chatting with you about “Passchendaele”. I’ll be interested to hear what you think after you’ve seen it again. You may still hate it! Plenty of people have. I do feel “Passchendaele” loses a little of its power on the small screen. In the theater, the war scenes were truly terrifying and overwhelming and they really drove home the sacrifice that so many made in World War I – or any war for that matter. I’ll say this for Paul Gross – you don’t watch his movies and forget all about them the next day. They provoke discussion whether you like them or not.

  14. Dee Says:

    Hi Meg,
    Just checking in again to let you know that I saw “Gunless” (mentioned above) with Paul Gross and Callum Keith Rennie. It was a very sweet movie full of gentle humor – kind of in the style of “Local Hero” or one of the other sweet comedies Bill Forsyth made in the 80’s. Aren’t you in Seattle? Vancouver is only 3 hours away – you could pop up there and see “Gunless” on the big screen before it’s gone! Just a suggestion.
    Take care!

  15. megwood Says:

    Ooh, that is TEMPTING! But there’s no way I can make it up there in time. It’ll either have to come to the US or it’ll have to hit Canadian DVD. I’m SO EXCITED that you liked it, though! Woo hoo! Can’t wait to see it! Thanks for the update!

    (Please excuse the overuse of exclamation points in this comment! I am very enthusiastic about Paul Gross/Callum Keith Rennie combos!)

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