Unchecked histrionics overrun vivid ballistics in the Canadian World War I meller “Passchendaele” (pronounced “passiondale.”). Toronto fest opener crudely welds the grisly verisimilitude of “Saving Private Ryan” to the contempo cultural revisionism of “Pearl Harbor” but can’t forge the disparate tones into a powerful whole, suggesting a limited charge beyond the domestic battlefield. Pic opens Oct. 17 across Canada.
Often compared to the Australian stand at Gallipoli for its squandering of valiant young life in the service of an ultimately futile cause, the 1917 events in the eponymous Belgian burg were part of the larger Third Battle of Ypres, which saw 140,000 Allied soldiers lost in a swampy moonscape of death. It’s a matter of great national pride that the Canadian Corps secured the land against entrenched German forces; that the ground was retaken shortly thereafter serves as another cautionary tale of war’s hell.
Pic’s opening sequence lays out the filmmakers’ ill-advised strategy of having modern slang issue from Great War doughboys. “Everybody good?” barks dashing Sgt. Michael Dunne (Paul Gross, writer, director, co-producer and star) to a decimated platoon. He’s subsequently injured in an artillery blast, but not before taking out a pillbox singlehandedly and brutally bayoneting a German soldier in the forehead.
Recuperating in his hometown Calgary recruitment office, the shell-shocked Dunne is smitten with hospital nurse Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas). She’s got baggage of her own, however, including a morphine addiction and an impetuous younger brother, David (Joe Dinicol), whose asthma prevents his enlistment.
Revelation that deceased Mann pere was a German soldier stirs tensions among the townspeople, including dastardly Brit officer Randolph Dobson-Hughes (Jim Mezon), who’s convinced that Dunne’s condition spells cowardice and so connives to have David conscripted.
At the 81-minute mark, the story shifts back to war, finding the falsely re-enlisted Dunne acting as David’s guardian angel to please Sarah, who’s conveniently caught up with them as a triage nurse. Stage is set for a pitched battle that fills the later reels, a relentless mix of fearful yet repetitive gore and surreal imagery that approaches the absurd.
A Canadian star on the strength of local tube hit “Due South” and the bigscreen curling comedy “Men With Brooms,” Gross, whose script was inspired by his vet grandfather’s stories, here reaches beyond his grasp; while clearly sincere, pic feels at once naive in its cardboard characterizations and calculating in its depiction of war’s horrors. His square-jawed leading turn stands in sharp contrast to the numerous underwritten secondary roles, and that modern slang simply doesn’t fit.
Tech package is aces, from longtime David Cronenberg production designer Carol Spier’s re-creation of the rain-soaked battlefield on 50 acres of Alberta parkland to the cumbersome wool and paraphernalia of Wendy Partridge’s costumes. Pic opens October 17 across Canada.