Monday, January 26, 2009

Movie Review: Defiance

Director Edward Zwick's latest effort is Defiance, a flick based on a true story, about four brothers in Byelorussia who find themselves at the head of a community of Jewish refugees hiding in the forest during the darkest days of the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union.

The eldest of the brothers, Tuvia (played by Daniel Craig) is a moral, courageous man who's primary concern is to maintain his humanity, perhaps even at the cost of his survival. His younger brother, Zus (played by Liev Schreiber), is militant, angry, focused on revenge, and seemingly more ready to resort to savagery in his quest for satisfaction. The primary conflict of the film, then, is the validity of the respective approaches that these two characters take as they face Nazi barbarity.

The winds of war soon sweep Tuvia and Zus apart. Tuvia establishes a camp in the forest where he and his two youngest brothers, Asael (played by Jamie Bell) and Aron (played by George MacKay) protect their ever-growing community of non-combatants (the elderly, women, children) and attempt to establish some semblance of a civilized life. Zus, meanwhile, signs on with a Red Army partisan unit operating in the vicinity and becomes one of its most fearless and valiant fighters, harassing and ambushing German military units.

Zwick, in his none-too-subtle way, demonstrates how the different paths chosen by the brothers are a reflection of the larger struggle of everyday people to remain above the savagery inherent in war. "We will not be like them!" insists Tuvia. "Well, let us at least kill like them," retorts Zus.

Zwick has a number of titles to his credit, the only one of which I have actually seen is the 2006 flick, Blood Diamond, which I liked well enough. And, being something of an amateur historian, and a World War II buff, Defiance seemingly had a lot to offer.

But, honestly, at times I found myself bored by the flick. I had very little empathy for any of the characters; I feel that Zwick never sufficiently raised the emotional stakes.

The film mostly avoids depicting Nazi cruelty; it is referenced but never really demonstrated. And while I suppose one could argue that such depictions have been done to death (no pun, please!) with such films as Schindler's List or The Pianist, I believe that Defiance suffers for their lack.

Further, in an apparent concession to date-going viewers, Zwick inserts some awkward romances, with the characters Lilka (played by Alexa Davalos) and Tamara (played by Kate Fahy) that may or may not be historically accurate, but that certainly don't move the plot forward.

The acting is adequate, all around, but I thought the dialog was a little weak. The writers threw a lot of pitches, but none really stuck with me. And Zwick seemed a little ham-handed with his use of the score: swelling violins cued viewers to feel moved or awed or sad. (The script certainly didn't manage it.) And, is it just me, or does anyone else find it annoying when the director instructs his cast to affect accents to indicate that they are speaking something other than English?

I suppose Zwick had his audience clearly in mind when he entered the cutting room, though. And that may well be why this film, with so much potential for high drama, feels watered down. The majority of weekend movie-goers probably don't want to leave the theater horrified and haunted by visions of Nazi brutality. Much better to come away from the experience with a pleasant sense of adventure, with images of a handsome actor and a foxy female lead to instigate the post-dinner bedroom play. Fair enough.

In short, I'd call this a good date movie. And to me, that's a disappointment. Because, given the subject matter, it could have been so much more.

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