Based on the book by Nechama Tec, this is the story of the Bielski brothers, who saved several hundred of their fellow Jews from the Nazis. The film begins with actual newsreel footage from Belarussia, in 1941, showing Jews being rounded up from their villages by Nazis and the local Russian police.

Two of the Bielski brothers, Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) find their father murdered and their youngest brother Aron (George MacKay) hiding in a cellar. They escape to the forest, where they are joined by the eldest, Tuvia (Daniel Craig). In the forest they discover a mass grave, and their first thoughts are of revenge. But, as other survivors turn up, Tuvia takes on the role of leader and decides to create a sanctuary for all the Jews who have nowhere else to go. He has high ideals for this community, “We must stay human,” and soon a split develops between him and Zus, who is more willing to kill to survive.

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As more refugees arrive, Tuvia and Zus learn that their wives and children have been killed. They also hear what is happening in the ghettos, and Tuvia decides to go there and rescue as many as he can.

Treated as a straightforward adventure story in the style of Black Book and Female Agents, this is quite entertaining, but unlike these other films it doesn’t have the betrayals and plot twists to keep it interesting. The characters are never more than two dimensional. Daniel Craig does his best with a rather leaden screenplay, but never really convinces as a Belarussian Jew. Language is another difficulty. The Russians and Germans are subtitled, but the Jews speak English. This leads to some awkward moments, such as when the partisans arrive at the camp making threats in Russian, then switch to English when they realise they are dealing with fellow Jews.

Everything is fairly predictable and heavily signposted. When Tuvia includes “no pregnancies” among his rules you know it won’t be long before that particular dictat is broken. None of the women has any personality, with the exception of Tamara, played by Jodhi May, who belongs in a better film than this.

All the Jewish stereotypes are here: the young intellectual, the wise old teacher, the lovable watchmaker; and of course there is a Jewish wedding. This sort of thing may be okay for Fiddler On The Roof, but it doesn’t begin to do justice to this subject matter.

Although filmed in Lithuania, there is little to give the feel of Eastern Europe, but one redeeming feature is the gentle, unobtrusive score by James Newton Howard (nominated for a Golden Globe).

At the end of the film we find out what subsequently happened to the Bielski brothers and see photographs of the real heroes. Their story deserves to be told, but not like this.

Reviewed on: 19 Dec 2008
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Four brothers escape Nazi occupied Belarussia and hide out in the woods with other rebels, plotting to rescue their fellow Jews.
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Director: Edward Zwick

Writer: Clayton Frohman, Edward Zwick

Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, George MacKay, Tomas Arana, Rolandas Boravskis, Allan Corduner, Alexa Davalos, Mark Feuerstein, Iddo Goldberg

Year: 2008

Runtime: 137 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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