Sunday, January 11, 2009

DEFIANCE - important and entertaining

Edward Zwick (BLOOD DIAMOND, THE LAST SAMURAI) is back with another professionally put together but visually uninspiring thriller that seeks to educate as it entertains. In the case of DEFIANCE, Zwick teaches us the true story of the three Bielski brothers, smugglers whose shady smarts proved invaluable in forming a resistance group against the Nazis and their Belorussian collaborators during the Holocaust. Thanks to these brothers, 1500 Jews survived in the woods of Belarus. Zwick's movie makes a powerful point about modern movie treatment of the Holocaust in which the Jewish characters are often an amorphous mass of passive victims, to be pitied no doubt, but not as individually interesting as the Nazis. By contrast, DEFIANCE is a film that shows us Jews fighting the Nazis and, indeed, surviving.

The movie has been criticised for being somehow too superficial - too fond of battle scenes and too interested in the heroes' love lives - as if an audience can't simultaneously be entertained and educated. Paul Verhoeven has successfully combined both elements in his work, most recently in ZWARTEBOEK, and Zwick pulls off the same trick here, though will less directorial style. So yes, we see Jamie Bell's character, youngest brother Asael, shyly fall in love with pretty young Chaya (Mia Wasikowska). And yes, we see Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as elder brothers Zus and Tuvia, take lovers after their wives have been killed. But we also see Zus and Tuvia debate the merits of direct action allied with the Communists versus slowing down but giving shelter to the elderly and women. And we see Zus and Tuvia debate the reversal of fortune which sees them - working-class boys, hailed as heroes and respected by the academics and rich.

The result is a thoughtful, well-acted film (Schreiber and Craig excel), that is also fast-paced and compelling. It's not as earnest or ponderous as SCHINDLER'S LIST but it is one of Zwick's better films allied to truly important subject matter.

DEFIANCE is on release in the US. It goes on release in South Korea, Spain and the UK next week and in France and Italy the following week. It opens in Poland on January 23rd; in Croatia on January 29th; in Singapore and Finland on February 6th; in Japan on February 14th; in Iceland on February 20th; in Australia, Brazil and Estonia on February 27th; in Belgium and Germany on March 5th and in the Netherlands on March 19th.

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