The men and women either in or around the 10th Canadian Artillery Battalion (based in Calgary) who populate Paul Gross’ purposely miserable depiction of life and death in the trenches during WW I deserve to have their stories told in such a first-rate production. Yet, many of the themes (blind obedience, cowardly acts, racism, and—most importantly—courage fuelled by love) could apply equally to any army in any era. Given the systemic horror produced by armed conflict, it’s a wonder (or perhaps a demonstration of the limited role magnificent art plays in shaping, much less changing human behaviour) theatres of war are still playing to “sold out” house in so many parts of the planet.
As director/writer/star (and a co-producer) this is most certainly Gross’ film. His credentials both behind and in front of the camera are deservedly lauded; it’s only the writing that can’t keep pace with his other skills. While Michael Dunne did serve and die for his country, the script’s back-story is crafted in a very made-for-television manner (not surprising given Gross’ background) where every plot point is carefully structured to build the emotional impact to a huge crescendo, but at the expense of subtleties or letting the viewers do any work themselves.
After going AWOL due to his participation in unspeakable atrocities, Private Dunne narrowly avoids execution by accepting a position in the recruitment office in Calgary. His superior, Major Bingham (Brian Jensen) is the stereotypical fight-for-King-and-country Brit (replete with regulation moustache and nose poke mannerism) whose nasty side makes his inevitable fate one of the production’s few moments of cheer.
Orphaned sister and brother Sarah (Caroline Dhavarnas) and David (Joe Dinicol) Mann provide much of the narrative’s focus. The former is a nurse who helps put Dunne back together and the pair fall hopelessly in love, enabling her to kick a nasty drug habit and him to become family protector. The latter is a disqualified-for-service asthmatic who is so distraught about his heritage (Dad died on Vimy Ridge but wore the wrong uniform) that he’ll stop at nothing to kill the Hun. Naturally, he gets his wish. No spoilers here, but none of the narrative twists come as a surprise; the only suspense generated is from wondering just how much gore will splatter on the screen. Thankfully, that element is not as overdone as The Passion of the Christ (cross-reference below).
Visually, the film is a marvel of balance: the unforgettable carnage depicted to the last detail in a pair of bloody war operations is simmered by Alberta’s spectacular foothills. Gregory Middleton’s cinematography is nothing short of spectacular. As was also heard to excellent effect in The Karamazovs (cross-reference below) Marek Szpakiewicz’s cello added much to the tenor and tone as did the contributions from Esprit Orchestra (conducted by Alex Pauk and featuring Erica Goodman’s magical harp).
If the battlefield realism could have found its way into the lives of the characters then Passchendaele would have been promoted to the rank of masterpiece. JWR