Sunday, January 18, 2009


Holocaust movies are generally Oscar bait and we got three in 2008: Kate Winslet in The Reader, Tom Cruise in Valkyrie and Daniel Craig in Defiance. There was also The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but that one lacked a big above the title movie star, so it pretty much stayed beneath the radar.

Defiance is the story of the Bielski brothers, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland into the Belorussian forest where they formed a partisan resistance group which eventually grew into a community of 1,200 Jews who were saved from certain death in the Nazi concentration camps.

Daniel Craig does a credible job as Tuvia, the eldest Bielski and defacto leader of the group. Liev Schreiber plays his hot-headed brother Zus and Jamie Bell is the sensitive younger brother Asael. It's gritty and brutal and an intriguing yet little-known story.

The performances are good all around, the cinematography is gorgeous. And yet while I felt it was a good movie, it missed the mark of being a great movie. For one, the pacing was a bit off and the story seemed to meander--and flounder--in the second act of the film. By the time the climatic third act battle occurs, it ends up feeling anti-climatic rather than a rousing and satisfying conclusion to the story.

The split focus between brother Zus who joins up with the Russian resistance and Tuvia who stays with the Jewish camp might have illuminated the differences in the brothers personalities, but it didn't help with creating the character development and emotional moments that engage and draw the audience in. The chemistry between Craig and Schreiber was really strong and could have been used to better effect with more scenes together. The character of Asael was the only one to undergo any transformation--but he was given so little screen time that his journey barely registered.

There is no bigger sap when it comes to being moved by a stirring drama. And yet my eyes did not well up in tears once.

If you tell a story about a group of people overcoming odds to survive and I'm not bawling my eyes out by the end of the movie, you've done something wrong somewhere.

Still, it was a story worth telling. Too bad it wasn't told better.

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