Paul Gross | 105 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Canada / English | 15 / R
Despite winning a bunch of Canadian film awards, this First World War drama seems to have been really poorly received by critics — the Radio Times even saw fit to award it just 1 star! I must dissent, however, because I thought it was very good.
The story concerns a Canadian soldier who is invalided out of the war, returns to Canada to recuperate, falls for a local outcast woman, and eventually returns to the front in time for the titular battle. There’s more to it than that, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. Sandwiched between the two battles, the stuff in Canada makes up the bulk of the film, making this more of a period social/romantic drama than a war film. You could class this bit as a melodrama, something that never seems to go down well with critics, but I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. In the ’40s, say, that would probably be considered the height of cinema. I appreciate we’re not in the ’40s any more, but that kind of epic feeling is still welcome to some, in the right place. That said, it does get a bit cheesy at times — the climax in particular is a bit heavy-handed with its symbolism.
On the whole, however, the bookending battle scenes are suitably evocative. The opening owes a lot to Saving Private Ryan & co in its style (the film’s relatively low budget makes it look distinctly like something from Band of Brothers), but many things owe their style to many other things, so I don’t think this is a problem either. Besides, that look has become the visual shorthand for This Is A Gritty Real War, that’s all. And besides, the sequence does its own thing with it. It’s quite a chilling, effective opening.
The later scenes at Passchendaele itself have more of their own feel. This is the muddy, rain-soaked First World War, and the fighting is chaotic, brutal, messy. Some have criticised it for not showing the scale of the event, which confused me because I thought it had a grand scale. And even if the scale isn’t big enough, the up-close-and-personal fighting surely gives an indication of what it was like to be there. If you were there, you wouldn’t have got an aerial shot of a huge battlefield with thousands dying, would you.
Serving triple time as star, writer and director, Paul Gross’ work as the latter is very good — see again comments on the battle scenes. Cinematographer Gregory Middleton also gives the Canadian scenes a painterly style, making a pleasant contrast. Gross’ screenplay… well, see the comments on the melodrama again. I think it’s mostly fine; we’ve all witnessed a lot worse — there’s nothing clunkingly bad here. His acting is equally solid.
For all the apparent critical bile you’d expect there to be obvious flaws, like terrible acting, but I really don’t think that’s the case. Again, like with the melodrama, some of it is occasionally a little mannered and some of the smaller roles are a fraction below par; but goodness, I’ve seen much worse performances in bigger roles in much better-regarded films.
Passchendaele may not be an exceptional achievement in cinematic quality, but it is very good and I really don’t see why some have such apparent hatred for it. In its own way it conveys well the lives and horrors of that time, and by being made from a Canadian perspective it offers a slightly different view to the one we normally see. And to be honest, I appreciate a film that remembers and in some way honours those that fought in the First World War — thanks in no small part to the Americans, we’ve had an endless stream of World War Two pictures, but the very particular circumstances of the Great War are less often put on screen. I think Passchendaele does a solid job of rectifying that, at least a little.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2012. Read more here.