One of several problems with the new Holocaust movie “[movie id=”349087″]Defiance[/movie]” is so obvious, a child could nail it. In this case, a little girl. She’s one of a band of Jewish refugees hiding from marauding Nazis in a Polish forest in 1941. The leader of the group, she notices, has blond hair and blazing blue eyes — in other words, he’s played by [movieperson id=”13830″]Daniel Craig[/movieperson]. The girl looks him over and then, taking the words right out of our mouths, says, “He’s a Jew?”
Those who didn’t buy Craig as a Jewish tough guy in “Munich” will probably find him similarly unpersuasive in this movie — especially since his character has a brother played by the emphatically non-blond [movieperson id=”165540″]Liev Schreiber[/movieperson]. (Another sibling is played by spritely [movieperson id=”244953″]Jamie Bell[/movieperson], which further muddles the family plot.) They’re portraying the legendary Bielski brothers, whose “amazing true story,” as it might have been put in a pitch meeting, truly is amazing. It took place in an area of Poland that had recently been overrun by Soviet Russia, and then, even more recently, invaded by the Nazis — who quickly set to work wiping out the Jewish populace. When the Bielskis’ parents were murdered, the brothers fled into the nearby forest lands, determined to fight back. Over the course of the next two and a half years, they were joined by hundreds of other Jews of a similarly pugnacious mindset. They constructed primitive shelters, kitchens, infirmaries and schools, built and maintained their own weapons, and did a lot of behind-the-lines damage.
You might think this heroic tale would be hard to screw up in a movie, and of course you’d be wrong. Director [movieperson id=”104605″]Edward Zwick[/movieperson], who last gave us the rote [movieperson id=”16710″]Leonardo DiCaprio[/movieperson] action flick “[movie id=”280657″]Blood Diamond[/movie],” has turned the Bielskis’ story into a pacelessly episodic nature film — very heavy on trees and greenery and copious snow, and lighter than you might wish in narrative structure. The two oldest brothers, Tuvia (Craig) and Zus (Schreiber) have been set up to enunciate opposing views in the eternal argument about justifiable violence. “We must get what we need without killing,” Tuvia says. “We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals.” To which Zus replies, “Your policy of diplomacy is sh–.”
The movie has some spirited raids and skirmishes, some rousing Nazi wipeouts, and an appropriately thunderous bomber attack. But we seem to spend most of our time hanging around in the woods watching the soggy interactions of such stock characters as the gruff-but-kindly rabbi and the fiery young socialist. This allows us lots of time (in a film that runs well over two hours) to note a certain lack of rigor in maintaining the period flavor of the dialogue. (The script is by Zwick and Clayton Frohman.) For example, when Tuvia insists that more threatened Jews be rescued from the surrounding countryside and brought to safety in the forest — despite the already pressing shortage of food — Zus looks at him and clucks, “So now you’re Moses, huh?”
There are also some startling moments of directorial overreach: When Craig rides into one scene mounted on a pure-white horse, it feels like we’ve suddenly been transported into a previously unknown chronicle of Narnia. (He later shoots the beast for meat, which is more like it.) And when some female refugees arrive in the camp, you wonder if it’s really necessary for the despairing cry of “More mouths to feed!” to be answered with a lusty “More young bodies to keep us warm!”
Craig and Schreiber are of course fine actors, and they manage to carve out moments of emotion amid the narrative drift here. But like most of the rest of the cast, they don’t belong in this movie. You may feel the same.
(“Defiance” is a Paramount Vantage picture. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)
Check out Kurt Loder’s review of “Good ,” also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Defiance.”
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