EmptyOpens: Wed., Dec. 31 (limited); Friday, Jan. 16 (wide) (Paramount Vantage)
The little-known account of a trio of Jewish brothers who rose up against the Nazis in occupied Eastern Europe is given its due by Edward Zwick in the passionate if prosaically rendered "Defiance."
While their remarkable stand against victimization -- based on the book "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans," by Nechama Tec -- certainly is a story that needed to be told, one wishes it could have been told more dynamically.
Despite commanding lead performances by Liev Schreiber and Daniel Craig, the film, which closed this year's AFI Fest, is going to prove challenging for Paramount Vantage when it opens in a limited Oscar-qualifying release at year's end considering an economic climate that likely will drive audiences to less reflective, more escapist fare.
When we first encounter Zus (Schreiber), Tuvia (Craig) and younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell), it's summer 1941 and their parents and family members have been killed in a mass execution in the Novogrudok ghetto.
Initially fleeing to the dense wooded area surrounding their childhood home, the working-class brothers ultimately avenge those deaths, forming the Bielski Otriad while saving the lives of hundreds of brethren by creating a community hidden in the Naliboki Forest.
Aside from the obvious obstacles, the Bielski resistance is further complicated by a classic sibling rivalry underscoring their conflicting moral philosophies.
While the idealistic Tuvia serves as the reluctant leader of their growing gathering, the volatile Zus adheres to a more violent course of action, driving a wedge between the two, with Asael caught somewhere in the middle.
That butting of heads, as performed by actors as strong and soulful as Craig and Schreiber, lends "Defiance" an emotional charge, even as the film itself struggles dramatically to find its way out of those woods.
Although Zwick and co-writer Clay Frohman have tailored a thoughtful script that covers all the inherent theological and philosophical angles and archetypes (making it an ideal "bearing witness" companion piece to Zwick's "Glory"), the production cries out for a more compelling approach given its limited exteriors.
It may have been filmed entirely on location in Lithuania, but there's a curiously flat, studio backlot feel to the staging of the production in spite of Eduardo Serra's unfussy, naturalistic camerawork and James Newton Howard's tender score, accentuated by Joshua Bell's plaintive violin.
Production: Grosvenor Park/Bedford Falls.
Cast: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell.
Director: Edward Zwick.
Screenwriters: Edward Zwick and Clay Frohman.
Executive producer: Marshall Herskovitz.
Producers: Edward Zwick, Pieter Jan Brugge.
Director of photography: Eduardo Serra.
Production designer: Dan Weil.
Music: James Newton Howard.
Costume designer: Jenny Bevan.
Editor: Steven Rosenblum.
Rated R, 129 minutes.