I’m holed up in a hotel. Sitting here on the bed, in my pants having just polished off some room service. A sous vide lamb rump if you must know, followed by a funny little pannacotta thing. Totally acceptable to my palate whilst at the same time not being anything worthy of taking a picture of for facebook. This is a halfway decent hotel as it happens but one that suffers from the same problems all hotels do. It’s not home. Someone else slept in this bed last night, someone else showered in that shower yesterday morning and try as they might the designers, management, cleaners and various other hospo staff just can’t make the experience feel anything other than transactional.
So here I’ve sat for the past two hours re-watching my film fare for the evening, ‘Passchendaele’ (2008). Maybe it’s my slightly dehydrated brain in a fit of pique but I can draw some comparisons between this film and my lock up for the night. They both lack personality, they both appear to have been designed by someone with just enough flair for the task to ensure I don’t simply turn and leave, they both lack heart, they’re both good to look at until you dig below the surface. I could go on labouring this point. My hotel room is doing what a hotel room does, keeping me dry and warm for the night whilst not being memorable. My film tonight has likewise filled a couple of hours but is ultimately forgettable as well. Hopefully you get my point.‘Passchendaele’ is a Canadian production, written, directed and produced by Paul Gross (the guy from Due South) and according to a quick scoot through the wiki page he wrote it in memory of his Grandfather who fought in the Great War. All very honest and altruist so far I suppose. The opening scene also has a nod to his Grandfather in the way a young German soldier is bayonetted in the forehead really slowly. This was apparently something Gross’s grandfather did and told him about. Indeed something he took to his grave with his dying minutes filled with regret for his actions.
On paper then, so far, I like the sentiment and the doffing of the cap to a real life event. Sadly after this start the rest of the film has to happen and it’s pretty much all downhill. What we have is a love story set in war time with a few intertwined characters trying to do things the other characters don’t want them to do. There’s a young lad with asthma who wants to prove he’s a big grown up, there’s the returned veteran with neurasthenia and there’s the boys sister who falls in love with the returned vet. That’s the core of it and around this central core we have an orbiting array of stereotypical, poorly written, half people/half plot devices to keep the thing plodding on.The story itself is thin at best and has been padded out extensively to plump it up to just under two hours. Two hours that felt like many more and had me constantly checking the clock for how long I had left. Hoping for a good ten minutes of end credits that I could knock off the total. As I said, at its core it’s basically a love story. Boy meets girl, boy meets girl’s brother, girls brother goes to war, boy follows to keep girls brother safe (because he loves the girl) and then it all goes wrong at the end (like all Great War Films should). Chuck in a load of pre-used plot devices and Bob’s your uncle, all home for tea and digestives by lunchtime.
Gross has cast himself in the lead role and I can only assume he wrote the role with himself in mind. If so, what a massive ego this dude must have. His character has superhuman qualities, he‘s calm from the outset whilst having a machinegun firing whistling hot lead past his ears. Indeed he maintains a schticky, cheesey conversation with some young colleagues as they calmly consider how best not to get themselves killed. He should’ve had a medal for bravery we are told, he’s a war hero, he’s a father figure for the younger, less perfect soldiers around him. He helps his girlfriend through morphine cold turkey and she comes out the other side with perfect hair. It’s just a little too much is what I’m trying to say.
It’s worth pointing out the good bits. The battle scene that eats up the final 25 minutes is large scale and well put together. The amount of gore, whilst being realistic, is quite jarring following the picture perfect, well lit, beautiful people camera work of the preceding hour and a half. There is mud and blood everywhere. Soldiers are flung through the air in pieces as shells fall, a guy turns to red mist before our eyes with a direct hit and then silence falls as we focus in on a very young German boy soldier sitting, blood splattered watching the gruel unfold around him. There seems to be some historical accuracy to the battle as well. Good stuff.Most of the film, however, is set back in Canada with the love story played out on horseback through gloriously beautiful Canadian backdrops. What an amazing place. Sadly the onscreen action is sickly sweet. The characters look longingly into each other’s eyes and talk love stuff as the piano and strings accompaniment tries to elicit an emotional response. I am left to pick the chunkier pieces of vomited lamb rump from between my teeth and dab at my ruined hotel bedspread with rough towels. ‘Er, reception? Room 201. Something bad has happened, could you send some new bedding and softer towels. Okay, thanks, bye, bye, bye’.
Sadly after my room was reset to its previous moribund condition I had to endure the ending. Having done all the good work with a battle scene loaded with energy, death and destruction it ends with Gross laying all his ego cards on the table. The girlfriend’s brother finds himself in a German trench about to be shot when a shell explodes and he is thrown through the air with a duck board and some barbed wire. As the smoke clears his crucified form appears. The battle grinds to a halt as both sets of belligerents stare at the gruesome scene before them.Gross’s character walks forward, under fire and, having taken a bullet or two, manages to free the crucifix from the ground. He then drags it and the nearly dead brother, jesuslike, back to safety. What the hell was that for? I vomit afresh and launch my laptop at the window. Happily, it’s a ground floor room so the laptop survived. I retrieve it, right click, delete.
Overall, I’m loathe to be too unkind too ‘Passchendaele’ even though it really deserves a severe shoeing for the crucifix scene. I think its heart is in the right place for the most part. What we ultimately have is a bit like ‘Flyboys’ (2006) in that it’s a film with some promise that needed a complete re-write before entering production. Its first draft script needed all the obvious guff chucked away, it’s the 21st Century damn you and we, the discerning Great War Film viewers deserve more than this. And the crucifix bit just needs to fuck right off. If I scored these things, which I don’t, it would’ve got maybe 4 out of 10.
Clicky Clicky you own a copy. If you must.
Next time I come right up to date with a film from the 2010’s. What will it be? Off the top of my head I can think of three. ‘Private Peaceful’, ‘Warhorse’ or ‘Beneath Hill 60’. Think I’ll let the Aussies have this one. Ta ta.