dir Edward Zwick
scr Clayton Frohman, Edward Zwick
with Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, George MacKay, Mark Feuerstein, Alexa Davalos, Jodhi May, Mia Wasikowska, Allan Corduner, Tomas Arana, Jacek Koman, Sam Spruell
release US 31.Dec.08, UK 9.Jan.09
08/US 2h17
Brothers in arms: Bell and Craig

schreiber feuerstein may
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Defiance An epic scope weakens what's actually a gritty, intimate drama about survival. But it's a terrific true story, full of both emotion and action, and beautifully shot and performed.

In 1941 Belarus, four Jewish brothers take to the forest after their parents are murdered by Nazi collaborators. Tuvia (Craig) lashes out in revenge, then takes a more compassionate apporach and starts accepting refugees into the camp. Zus (Schreiber) has a more fiery desire to fight back. Asael (Bell) slowly develops a heroic response to the violence. And Aron (MacKay) turns in on himself. As their numbers grow, they make an uneasy alliance with Soviet bandits to take a stand against the Germans.

Filmmaker Zwick deftly applies his usual artistic skills and attention to detail, with gorgeous cinematography by Eduardo Serra that brings the wooded setting sharply to life and really throws us into the terrifying action. And the strong cast (speaking in strangely accented English) make the characters complex and engaging as they struggle with the horror around them, as well as the sometimes awkward bonds of their families and ethnicities.

But it would have been even more compelling if it had been shot on a smaller, scruffier budget. The filmmakers indulge in too-detailed production design and far too many characters and storylines (including romances for the three older brothers), all of which expands the film's scope while limiting its intimate focus. The result is gripping and emotional, but also extremely earnest. Especially when Tuvia starts making another inspirational Schindler-meets-Moses speech ("We will not become animals! Our revenge is to live!").

This is a dark and moody story about tenacity and resilience in the face of unspeakable violence. And it's a riveting story from WWII that has never been told on film before. The actors beautifully create characters with strengths and weaknesses we immediately identify with. And the film forces us to examine seriously relevant issues about moral choices between peace and war, compassion and discipline. But by trying to wedge in every individual experience and far too many capers, battles, power struggles and love stories, the filmmakers diffuse what could have been an edgy, haunting tale of four brothers who did something truly extraordinary.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 17.Nov.08

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© 2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall