War movies about Americans may be a dime a dozen, but it is a rare thing indeed to find depictions of Canadian patriotism. This gaping void alone offers good reason to believe a film by writer/director/actor Paul Gross about a horrific battle waged by his countrymen on Belgium soil will play well in his homeland.
Inspired by his grandfather's involvement in the historic struggle, Gross takes on the role of Michael Dunne, a soldier who has been sent home to Calgary, Alberta after suffering from a mix of heroism and emotionally motivated savagery on the battlefield. Diagnosed with shell shock, Michael is assigned to work at the local recruiting office under the direction of British officer Randolph Dobson-Hughes (Jim Mezon), a hardheaded man who views Dunne's condition with contempt.
Also brewing is a romance between the soldier and a beautiful nurse who attended his war wounds. But Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas) comes with additional baggage unknown to Michael. Along with a secret morphine addiction, Sarah has German ancestry that puts her and her family in an unpopular class within their frontier community. Nevertheless, the relationship continues to develop.
Sarah's brother David (Joe Dinicol) however is not faring as well. Not only is his heritage a problem, but the young man also suffers from asthma, barring him from enlisting in the conflict. Desperate to prove his allegiance to his young country, David begs Michael (against his sister's wishes) to sign him up for active service.
Predictable turns of fate and a heavy dose of coincidence drive the plot into the third act where all the principal characters find themselves in the trenches, defending the village of Passchendaele. It's a muddy fight that, in reality, resulted in 16,000 Canadian casualties, with 5,000 deaths.
Yet for all this carnage, Gross does what Canadians are famous for in that he stops short of giving us the moment of patriotic pride we may be hoping for.
Perhaps that is fair enough. War is horrific and obviously Gross wants that to be the real message. However he doesn't shy away from other distractions, which may catch history-seeking parents (and eager teachers) by surprise. These include detours into heady romantic encounters where one young couple jumps at the chance to have sex (brief male and female nudity are seen), and another pair finds a moment on the sidelines of the battlefield (their sensuous sounds manage to hover over the blasts). Profanities are also frequent, as well as several sexual expletives.
As a filmmaker, Gross went to great pains to ensure the battlefield and tools of war were historically precise. This attention to detail helps to create an emotionally charged sense of just how bad the situation was. Unfortunately, the generous addition of fictitious fluff leaves one wondering why so much priority was placed on passion versus Passchendaele.