Thursday, June 4, 2009

DVD Views: Defiance

Defiance *** (2008)
Directed By: Edward Zwick.
Written By: Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick based on the book by Nechama Tec.
Starring: Daniel Craig (Tuvia Bielski), Liev Schreiber (Zus Bielski), Jamie Bell (Asael Bielski), Alexa Davalos (Lilka Ticktin), Allan Corduner (Shamon Haretz), Mark Feuerstein (Isaac Malbin), Tomas Arana (Ben Zion Gulkowitz), Jodhi May (Tamara Skidelsky), Kate Fahy (Riva Reich), Iddo Goldberg (Yitzchak Shulman), Iben Hjejle (Bella), Martin Hancock (Peretz Shorshaty), Ravil Isyanov (Viktor Panchenko), Jacek Koman (Konstanty 'Koscik' Kozlowski), George MacKay (Aron Bielski), Jonjo O'Neill (Lazar), Sam Spruell (Arkady Lubczanski), Mia Wasikowska (Chaya Dziencielsky).

On the page, Defiance looks like a can’t miss movie. It tells the story of three (well four really) Jewish brothers from Belarus who during WWII create a city in the forest where they, and hundreds of other Jews, hide from the Nazis and simply try to live out the war. This is not a well known chapter in WWII history, but it’s an important one. On many levels, Defiance works pretty well. As a character study, as a tale of survival and faith, it delivers on its promise. But as a war movie, it never really does. This is odd because usually director Edward Zwick is able to get the action right, and the drama wrong, but this time he got it the other way around.

The movie opens in 1943. With the Nazis on the March into Russia, they start rounding up all the Jews in the country and either shipping them off to concentration camps, or else killing them right there on the spot. Of course, even the Communists, who are supposed to hate all religions, don’t much care for the Jews either, so the Nazis have little trouble convincing local authorities to help out. So when the Bielski brothers find that their parents have been murdered, they run off into the forest. Having had to hide from the police there many times in the past, they know their way around backwards and forwards. And with only four mouths to feed, they think they’ll be able to ride out the conflict without too much distress. But then more and more Jews come into the forest. Some are survivalists like the Bielski, but many are accountants or intellectuals, and have no real idea of how to live in the forest.

The brothers clash. The eldest, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) finds it impossible to turn people away. Even if feeding all these people will be impossible, he’s determined to find a way to do it. To him, the best way to defy the Nazis is to simply stay alive. His younger brother, Zus (Liev Schreiber), takes a more practical look at things. They cannot feed all these people. They will slow them down, and perhaps get them killed. And he also believes that they best way to fight the Nazis is the actually fight them head on – he eventually joins the partisans, who although they admire his strength, still don’t really like him because he’s a Jew. The third brother, Asael (Jamie Bell) is somewhere between these two, being pulled apart by the two warring factions. And the youngest brother Aron, well, he doesn’t really do anything but mope.

The movie is fascinating to watch for several reasons. For one, it proves the theory that I’ve always had about Survivor – if they wanted to make the show truly challenging, they would make them live for 39 in a freezing cold climate rather than a tropical one. The winter we see is the hardest part. People get sick, food is much more scarce, and spirits drop. People are dying, and yet there is little that can be done. The dead must be forgotten, so that the group can survive. The performances in the movie are convincing – if a little one note. The three leads – Craig, Schreiber and Bell – do a good job at developing their relationships to make you believe they are really brothers. And Allan Corduner and Mark Feuerstein are also excellent as two intellectuals who learn to use their hands, as well as their minds. The women in the movie – and there are quite a few – are less well drawn, and never really rise above the level of “love interest”, but perhaps that’s because the filmmakers know that the romance is not really the point of the movie.

The cinematography by Eduardo Serra is also beautiful – at times breathtaking. The winter can be harsh, but it is also full of great opportunities to take amazing shots, and Serra cannot resist showing off at certain points, yet it never really feels like showing off. The music by James Newton Howard (which was nominated for an Oscar) is appropriately grim, if not exactly groundbreaking work.

While I enjoyed much of the movie, and was never for a second bored, I was a little let done by the battle sequences. For some reason, Zwick decides that much of these scenes needs to shown in slow motion, with distorted sound. It is enough to jar you right out of the movie, and it takes a while for you to settle back in. They are, in a word, distracting. And that’s too bad, because this could have, and should have, been one of the year’s best. As it stands it’s a good film – perhaps even very good – but it should have been more.

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