Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Defiance [The Review]

This is not a review. I left half-way through Defiance, in an act of, perhaps, Defiance. Defiance is highly thought of in the Oscar race. Daniel Craig plays the lead character, a rugged freedom fighter and militia man, a proto-Israeli if you like. He’s tipped for an Oscar nomination; US audiences like the story, based on a true incident, of Jewish Byelorussians fighting back against the Nazis.

After German troops storm his village and kill many of the inhabitants, with the help of the local police, Tuvia Bielski (Craig) heads for the silver beechwoods and soon find himself in charge of several dozen refugees of all ages and backgrounds.

With his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber again returning to his East European Jewish roots), Tuvia finds some early success in launching attacks on Nazi convoys and killing enemy soldiers. But the two brothers, in classic Russian style, do not see eye-to-eye. Tuvia believes in keeping the locals on-side whereas Zus favours what is in effect all-out war. Tuvia makes an effort to persuade members of an embattled Jewish ghetto that they must escape and join him. Zus feels that the elderly and infirm are simply slowing them down. Both, of course, are right.

After an ugly tussle which ends with fisticuffs on the muddy woodland floor, Zus leaves the ever-growing Jewish camp to join the Russian militia. These ex-Red army soldiers are only marginally better than the men they are fighting, but at least, Zus reasons, he is out there killing Germans. The Jewish militia-men find as much random anti-Semitism in the drunken Russian militia-men as in their foes, and the Russians refuse to share their antibiotics with the Jewish camp when a typhus epidemic breaks out in the bitterly cold, snowbound woods. The Red Army, it might as well be said, were aggrieved by the German attack; after all they had done everything to help Hitler, including the use of a submarine base and the use of Russian icebreakers for U-Boats attacking allied shipping.

But this isn’t a history lesson, this is a mainstream Hollywood movie. Director Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, I am Sam, The Last Samurai) has a certain way of doing things - mighty liberal themes, rich cinematography, and a mawkish love of sentiment. His scripts, generally, are leaden, a-historical, badly written and portentous. But his films do reasonably well because he makes up for his shortcomings in the competent direction of big-name actors.

I broke off seeing Defiance because I was sick of it. Sick to death of it. It was only halfway through and yet this interminable melodrama, droning on, was stretching out for another endless 90 minutes. In the time remaining, I could go home and watch the whole of Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece from 1962. Instead of watching Defiance I could have watched 142 minutes of Come and See from 1985, a Russian drama also set around the Nazi genocide in Byelorussia, a film so highly thought-of by Spielberg he organised cast-and-crew screenings at the Saving Private Ryan shoot.

In Come and See, you have the raw horror – the horror of war, not Fiddler on the Rough, which waltzes with as many cliches concerning Russian-Jewish heritage as it claims to shoot down. In Ivan’s Childhood you have the desperation and the cold, the wintry Russian landscape, the fragility of loyalties and friendships. You have the desolation of the young. You don’t have contrived relationships, weddings in the snow cross-cut with attacks on Nazis, binding religious ceremonies while blood is spilled, as if it was the Godfather, except Jewish, and in Russia. You have real, bitter relationships formed out of frost and fire.

So there you have it. This is not a review of Defiance. Good luck to it all the way to the Oscars, yet another overblown piece of Oscar carrion for the daws to pick at. No doubt Daniel Craig loved being out of his Bond persona, no doubt Liev Schreiber felt energized by his reconnection to an ancestral past, and Jamie Bell extended his emotional range in some sense. It’s a magnificent topic for a film. But mawkish, tedious Edward Zwick is not the man to do honor to those few and fabled Jewish insurrections, when the underdog bit back, and when people didn’t behave like actors, hugging each other, like acting classes in the woods.