We are in the midst of the Great War. Michael Dunne (Paul Gross) is a Canadian solider recovering from physical and psychological wounds. He falls in love with his nurse (Carline Dhavernas), and when her asthmatic brother enlists, Dunne heads back to the trenches to protect him, and the two men wind up at the gigantic, murderous battle that gives the film its name.
Writer/director/star Gross has an almost messianic commitment to Canadian film and Canadian history, and here he combines his obsessions in a 20-million-dollar effort that is, by the standards of the Canadian film industry, nothing short of gargantuan. And to his credit, the battle scenes are impressive. The editing is frequently startling and brutal, in keeping with the events themselves. On the other hand, the romance is painfully hackneyed, and the naked appeals to national pride can be rather wince-inducing.
One’s mental images of the World Wars is black-and-white, thanks to newsreel footage. This is especially true of WWI, since it hasn’t had the Hollywood treatment nearly as much as its sequel. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to encounter the rich, warm colours that Gross treats us to, and the opening scene (of urban fighting, rather than trench warfare) suggests a film eager to distinguish itself visually from the muted palette of Saving Private Ryan. At any rate, the transfer is excellent, with no grain, a very sharp image, and truly wonderful contrasts.
Spectacular, wonderful stuff here. The 5.1 is fully exploited, and the effect is magnificent. Artillery shells will launch from the rear left and travel to the front right, and the eyes of the characters on screen will confirm what our ears are already telling us. Talk about placing the audience in the middle of the conflict. Sterling work, of a quality that makes us long for more battle and less banal romance.
The Road to Passchendaele: (43:50). On Disc 1 (as are the trailers), this is an in-depth look at the making of the film, going far beyond the usual making-of feature.
Trailer, Teaser and TV Spots: The latter are divided by theme: “Action,” “Canadiana,” “Romance,” and “History.”
Front Lines: (33:53) This is essentially an oral history (as are most of the other Disc 2 features), using archival footage and the letters of soldiers at the front to convey the experience of the war. As this is the most substantial of the set of related featurettes, there is sometimes a lot of overlap of content (particularly with “The Life of a Solider”). The title of each piece is self-explanatory. The rest of the series is as follows:
Nurses at the Front: (8:03).
The Officer’s Role: (8:33).
The Life of a Solider: (9:07)
Faith and Hope: (9:06).
The Trenches: (9:45).
Given that these are all essentially part of a larger whole, it’s too bad there isn’t a “Play All” function.
Remembrance: (4:55) A glossy (but perhaps a bit precious) introduction by Gross to the film and his aspirations. This was a piece done for the 2009 Governor General’s Awards.
An ambitious film, with some very striking aspects, but its reach exceeds is grasp.