January 22, 2009

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Defiance (R)
Daniel Craig takes on the Nazis in Defiance, a based-on-a-true story about a Jewish community that fought to survive World War II by living in the woods of what was then Poland (now Belarus).

Tuvia (Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George McKay) Bielski are Jewish brothers ranging in age from married and living elsewhere to kid (Aron) who find themselves reunited and living together in the forest after Nazis and local police invade their various villages and cities and kill the Bielskis’ parents. With Jews being hunted by the Nazis and some locals (and treated poorly by Polish and Soviet partisans), the Bielskis decide to stay in the forest, which they know well and have turned to (we are told) at earlier times when they’ve run in to trouble with the police. But now they aren’t alone. Slowly at first, they are joined by more and more Jewish refugees of massacres and imprisonments all over the area. Soon, the groups are building shelters, assigning jobs to newcomers and — because it’s cold in Poland/Belarus and you’ve got to stay warm somehow — taking “forest wives” and “forest husbands,” relationships with varying levels of permanence which make up for the husbands and wives these people have left or lost in the outside world.

Of course, with all the scouting for food and Jews secreted away from ghettos, the Nazis don’t remain completely ignorant of what’s going on the woods (which are also harboring Soviet soldiers and Polish partisans). Zus is eager to fight the Nazis, eager to get some retribution for the many many wrongs done to his family and their people. Tuvia is all about the greater good of the group and also “not becoming like them.” This, coupled with the natural friction between an oldest brother and a second-oldest brother, causes fractures between the brothers that threatens the stability of the community they have built.

But don’t worry, despite the philosophical arguments there’s still plenty of Nazi-fighting.

Defiance, with its heroics and black-and-white struggle (to-kill-or-not-to-kill argument aside, it’s very much underdogs versus a bunch of people who either hate them or hate them a lot), is not a particularly subtle story but it is a mostly entertaining one. While I don’t think the movie would have been hurt by losing at least half an hour from its two-hour-and-17-minute running time, it uses its time relatively well — the speeches are kept to a minimum and there’s plenty of satisfying “take that, Nazi scum”-style fighting. We don’t get much more in terms of character development than “Tuvia is thinky” and “Zus is angry,” but all the cold and grittiness keep the sappiness at bay, so even when the movie doesn’t break a sweat trying to create depth it doesn’t become the thin soup it could have been. B-

Rated R for violence and language. Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Clayton Frohman and Zwick (from Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec), Defiance is two hours and 17 minutes long and is distributed by Paramount Vantage.