Review by Jack Foley
EDWARD Zwick’s World War Two drama Defiance is notable for shedding welcome ight on the Jewish resistance that fought back against the Germans, and which was responsible for saving over 1,000 lives.
However, it’s also a distinctly Hollywood affair that refuses to examine, too deeply, some of the harsher realities of their conflict and survival, and opting instead to play up some of the heroics with big action sequences that have clearly been inspired by other filmmakers.
Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell play three of the four Bielski brothers (Tuvia, Zus and Asael), who form a partisan group after escaping their Nazi-occupied homeland of west Belarus in Poland.
Hiding out in the forests, they mount an unlikely resistance but constantly find themselves having to battle extreme cold, hunger and differences in opinions… whilst also being responsible for an ever-increasing number of fellow Jews.
For Tuvia, in particular, the rescue and survival of fellow comrades is of paramount importance, while for Zus revenge against the Germans is top of the agenda.
Zwick’s film is arguably at its best and most riveting when exploring the fractured dynamic that exists between the brothers, with Craig and Schreiber both excelling in putting their different points of view across, whilst coping with the resposibilities placed upon their shoulders.
Jamie Bell is typically good, too, as the younger brother caught in between them, who is forced to grow up fast as a result of the escalating situation.
But the film is hampered by an occasional lack of drive and focus, as well as Zwick’s insistance on crowd-pleasing set pieces, as opposed to genuinely gritty authenticity.
One action sequence, in particular, owes a huge debt to Steven Spielberg’s D-Day showpiece in Saving Private Ryan, while another big moment owes much to the epic sense of juxtaposition employed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Zwick’s decision to concentrate on a limited time frame (from 1941 to 1942) also feels like only half the story is being told, while the film has also courted controversy in Poland for “ignoring” the Bielski’s alleged involvement in the Naliboki massacre – although given this is still under investigation and denied by Tuvia’s son, it’s hardly surprising that Zwick has decided to omit it.
Indeed, there are moments when the film cautiously explores some of the darker decisions and/or mistakes made by the brothers – but they only leave you pining for more of the ethical dilemmas put in front of them, rather than the romantic involvements that simply drag things out.
Defiance is by no means a bad movie and is certainly worthy in the sense that it does throw the spotlight onto a resistance movement that had threatened to get overlooked. It’s also well performed by a universally impressive cast.
But Zwick’s decision to play it safe for the multi-plex audiences robs the film of the type of grit that would have elevated it to greatness and denies it any lasting complexity. It’s an approach that has served him well on past hits such as Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai, but which doesn’t sit quite so comfortably in a Holocaust-themed story.
Running time: 2hrs 17mins
UK DVD & Blu-Ray Release: May 18, 2009