The desperation of the Toronto Film Festival to land a high-profile new Canadian film for its annual opening-night gala has rarely been more palpable than in the case of this year's Passchendaele, an expensive exercise in maple-leaf patriotism set before, during and after the titular World War I battle where 16,000 Canadian soldiers perished while trying to win control of a German-occupied Belgian village of little strategic importance. The movie stars and was written and directed by Paul Gross, who's best known on our side of the border as one of the stars of the mid-'90s television series Due South, and whose only previous directing experience was the alleged comedy Men with Brooms (2002), which featured Gross and Naked Gun alum Leslie Nielsen in a celebration of the Canuck sport of curling. A hit on its home turf, Men went directly to DVD in the U.S., where audiences may well have confused it for a movie about zen and the art of janitorial maintenance.
No matter: Gross' directorial debut seems to have been enough to convince him that he was ready to try his hand at a full-fledged, Saving Private Ryan-style combat spectacle, and pretty much right from the start it's obvious that he's bitten off more than he can fit his lips around, let alone chew. This is the sort of war movie where soldiers with nicknames like "Skinner" and "Highway" get tossed about by shrapnel blasts while shouting lines like "You're gonna be OK," "We're gonna get you outta here" and "Mama! Where are you, mama?" And that's just for starters. The hero of this particular tale is an AWOL Sergeant (Gross) recovering from combat shock in a Calgary hospital, who, naturally, falls for the comely charms of the beautiful, fatherless nurse (Caroline Dhavernas) tending to his physical and psychological wounds. Just for good measure, she has a deep, dark family secret, as well as an asthmatic younger brother (Joe Dinicol) who longs to test his manly mettle on the battlefield. How Gross managed not to top things off with a blind old man or a three-legged dog is beyond me, although Gil Bellows does pop up as Gross' one-armed best friend.
The battle scenes that bookend Passchendaele's sudsy romanticism are impressive in terms of scale and the acrobatic ways in which human bodies fly across the screen. But that ultimately amounts to little in a movie where the performers (particularly Gross and Dinicol) are so wooden that they are scarcely distinguishable from the theme-park level period sets and costumes. After about 20 minutes of this, I started hoping that Leslie Nielsen would appear and reveal that Passchendaele was all one big put-on. No such luck.
Bad opening (and closing) night films at the world's major international film festivals are hardly news — so much so that, when I encountered some colleagues on my way to the Passchendaele press screening, more than one wondered aloud why I was even bothering in the first place. So the story might end there: just as Cannes had its Da Vinci Code, so Toronto has its Passchendaele. But Gross' film strikes me as an especially curious case, because it is a film so self-consciously made in the Hollywood idiom, designed to show that Canada can do a war movie as slickly and professionally as its neighbor to the south. And there's the rub: The Canadian "new wave" movies of the 1960s and '70s — those early films by directors like Michel Brault, David Cronenberg, Claude Jutra, Don Shebib and Michael Snow that first gave Canadian cinema a distinctive locus on the world cinema map — were elementally modest, personal films made by artists driven by no greater motive than to tell original stories in their own, unique voices. They were movies made for very little money that managed to be embraced by audiences all around the world, whereas Passchendaele is a movie made for a lot of money that will be lucky to make it to a second weekend in the Great White North.
There are, of course, still bold, original filmmakers at work in Canada — Cronenberg, the Innuit-language director Zacharias Kunuk and Quebec's Robert Lepage among them — but, more and more, the Canadian movies that receive the biggest fuss at Toronto (not just Passchendaele, but such other recent "galas" as Fugitive Pieces and the Martin Short debacle Jiminy Glick in Lalawood) are, simply put, much ado about nothing.