Sought after by explorers for centuries as a possible trade route, the Northwest Passage was a mysterious beast. A sea route through the Arctic Ocean, one would think that the various expeditions that set out in search for it, many returning battered if at all, would discourage the continued search but blame it on humanity’s fascination with the unattainable or our unwillingness to give into nature, the passage was, eventually, navigated. But John Walker’s documentary isn’t interested in the long history of the search for the passage. Instead Passage focuses on one of the most colourful of the “lost” expeditions the Franklin Expedition and John Rae, the explorer who eventually discovered what had happed to the lost Franklin group.
Canadian history buffs are likely to be familiar with the stories while the rest of us will recall bits and pieces from our Canadian history classes but I can assure you that if the text books I was forced to read had brought up the possibility of cannibalism, I would have paid much closer attention. It’s not just a simple story of men getting lost at sea; it’s a combination of that, mixed in with one woman’s quest to find out what happened to her husband as well as a country’s fight to overcome (or overlook) the grizzly outcome of the expedition.
Walker’s film is actually a documentary of the making of a film (apparently a TV movie), and as such, uses some fairly unconventional methods. Rather than employ talking heads of historians and voice-overs of people reading diary entries, Walker combines these traditional techniques, turns them slightly and mixes them with a few less conventional ones. Re-enactments (which, in places, are blended beautifully into modern times), voice-overs (mostly from actor Rick Roberts who has been cast in the role of John Rae) and the historians (who are anything but dry) come together to prepare for shooting. Large parts of the film take place during script readings and actor/specialist meetings in preparation for the roles and it’s though this behind the scenes approach of listening to historians and experts share knowledge that we come to learn the details of the expedition, the resulting scandal which shook Britain and even some insight into what could have been going through the minds of the people involved.
Walker isn’t simply satisfied with sharing information and aside from the interesting approach, the film also makes excellent use of the breathtaking locations which, in combination with the melodic Irish score, made me wish I had a couple of extra thousand dollars in the bank and a few weeks to take a holiday.
Truth be told, Passage is the type of documentary you’d expect to find as a DVD extra except that the production value and story that unfolds is more dramatic than some films. Aside from the informative history lesson, there is one event that unfolds towards the end of the film between Inuit historian Tagak Curley and Gerald Dickens, the Charles Dickens’ great-great grandson, that came as a great surprise. The connection between these two individuals goes back generations but the moments that unfold really bring to light the idea of history as living, growing organism.
It’s not clear whether John Walker’s feature film will see the light of day any time soon but at least we have this wonderful documentary to look back on. If nothing else, Passage will stand as a document to the film that could have been and though it’s not nearly as dramatic as Lost in La Mancha, it’s certainly informative and entertaining.