Belorussia, 1941. Fleeing the Nazis, the Bielski brothers, Tuvia (Craig), Zus (Schreiber) and Asael (Bell), find refuge in the forest. Fellow survivors help create an alternative community, while occasionally striking back at their oppressors...
Harvey Weinstein has long talked of directing the story of the Warsaw uprising, when ghettoised Jews fought back against the Nazis. Knocked Up’s Ben Stone extolled the virtues of the top-shot Jews of Munich: “Dude, every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed. Munich flips it on its ear. We cappin’ motherfuckers!” Yes, Jews are often victims on film, but Munich’s Daniel Craig is back cappin’ in Defiance, leading a ragtag partisan force against the invading Nazis. “Jews do not fight,” says an incredulous Red Army officer. “These Jews do,” comes Craig’s reply. Woo-hoo! Lock ’n’ load! Passover this, asshole!
Of course, this being an Edward Zwick picture, Defiance is actually Very Serious. And, in fairness, it has a serious story to tell: of remarkable endurance, courage and unlikely hope. The pity is that despite its authentic origin — adapted from historian Nechama Tec’s non-fiction account — the film feels second-hand. It is caringly crafted, sincere and admirable, but while the facts are fresh, the execution is over-familiar.
From Force 10 From Navarone to Schindler’s List to Braveheart (in a particularly ill-advised oratory on horseback), Defiance is defiantly A Movie: efficient and reductionist. You can hear the machinery of the screenplay creaking as subplots and characters — or, really, types (PHILOSOPHER, INTELLECTUAL, BASTARD) — emerge. That Craig’s reluctant-but-flinty heroism barely avoids being one-note is down to the part as much as the performance, while Liev Schreiber acts as if he is carrying the responsibilities of God on his bear-like shoulders. The pair embody contrasting views of resistance — survival and vengeance — but there is little there to suggest the warmth of real family, with a fine Jamie Bell only a little better served as the youngster caught between them.
Zwick is a sturdy, competent director, with an eye for action and an honourable desire to illuminate long-shadowed stories. But his work often feels clenched with a sense of its own importance. Defiance, like Blood Diamond, is as much education as entertainment, and until he falls in love with people as much as issues, he will remain undone by his desire to make a difference.
An amazing true tale is somewhat diminished by second-hand storytelling: entirely admirable, largely entertaining, and yet curiously hollow.