A potentially exceptional story is told in a flatly unexceptional manner in “Defiance.” True-life yarn of a band of Jewish brothers who led a small but resilient resistance movement against the Nazis in Belorussia during World War II seems like such a natural for the bigscreen that it’s surprising it’s never cropped up before. But Edward Zwick’s version of the grim but inspirational events becomes more conventional as it goes, topped by a climax straight out of countless war pics and Westerns. Presence of Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber in tough macho guise will attract some action fans, and Holocaust-related theme will draw others, but overall commercial prospects appear modest.
By focusing on a handful of tough rural guys who, no matter the overwhelming odds, choose to take their chances living in a dense forest and hit the Germans when they can rather than go quietly, “Defiance” seems explicitly designed to counter the prevailing image of Jews acquiescing to their fates in ghettoes or camps without fighting back. Most of the time, such resistance was impossible, but the film, based on a 1993 book by historian Nechama Tec, turns the spotlight on an instance in which resourcefulness, tenacity and heroism resulted in 1,200 Jews emerging from the woods at war’s end.
Zwick has examined little-known historical incidents before, notably in “Glory,” and “Defiance” has the advantage of centering upon three brothers, the Bielskis: Tuvia (Craig), a smuggler who returns after the Nazis have rampaged through their area in August 1941, killing family members along with many others; Zus (Schreiber), the so-called “wild one”; and the considerably younger Asael (Jamie Bell), whose tender sensibilities toughen up in a hurry.
Tuvia undergoes his baptism of blood by killing the local police chief who murdered his father, but then renounces further revenge missions, having decided that “our revenge is to live.” However, Zus wants to eliminate local collaborators, and their guerrilla tactics enable them to take out some Nazis as well, scooping up additional arms in the process.
Others find their way to the brothers’ remote camp, which soon resembles a community, complete with religious figures, a bespectacled “intellectual,” love interests for the brothers and, most crucially, more fighters. The group’s numbers are further swollen after Tuvia and Asael visit a nearby urban Jewish ghetto and spirit out many volunteers.
But the restless Zus, dubious about Tuvia’s ability to capably head the group and anxious for direct action, splits with his brother and joins a group of partisans operating nearby under the Red Army banner. Forced to move after having been discovered by the Germans, Tuvia’s group builds a new hidden village, while Tuvia, who’s not exactly a born leader, tries to inspire his people with a sense of purpose — “to live free, like human beings, for as long as we can” — and prepare for the winter.
Through roughly the first half, viewer goodwill and interest are piqued by the story’s basic circumstances, the promise that at least some of these characters will find a way to prevail, Craig and Schreiber’s rugged appeal, and the muted beauty of Eduardo Serra’s blue-, green- and gray-infused location cinematography in the forests of Lithuania.
But through the remaining hour-plus of the script by Clayton Frohman and Zwick — as malnourishment and illness hit the community, romances blossom, Zus wrestles with whether to stick with the Russians or return to the fold, and Tuvia, faced with aerial bombing and approaching Nazi troops, must lead his people, like Moses, across water to safety — it all becomes pretty standard-issue stuff, filled with noble and tragic heroism, familiar battle images and last-second rescues. None of the suffering, sacrifices, anxieties or tests of heart and soul are rendered with any special dimension or heightened force, nor depicted with anything near the staggering, hallucinatory impact of the two great Russian films to have depicted events in wartime Belorussia, Larisa Shepitko’s 1977 “The Ascent” and her husband Elem Klimov’s 1985 “Come and See.”
Zwick has made the debatable decision to have all the actors deliver their dialogue in English with a roughly Slavic-cum-Russian accent, then speak (subtitled) Russian when the occasion demands it. Given the odd disorientation this provokes, one wonders if the accents were worth the trouble.
His brilliant blue eyes emphasized to make them positively glow at times, Craig acquits himself manfully as a flawed, limited fellow struggling to find leadership qualities within himself. But to really pay off, the part should have been provided with more explicit subtext; if Tuvia really was a criminal before the war, his past could have been brought to bear more meaningfully on his new role in life. Were he and his brothers the local equivalent of hillbilly rubes, as might be surmised from the attitudes of the more learned members of their flock? If so, some helpful humor might have ensued. And how deeply and far back did the animosity between Tuvia and Zus run? Many details and useful distinctions that would have helped individualize and define the main characters are glossed over.
Schreiber’s fierceness and sheer physicality have rarely been so amply emphasized, and they allow him to dominate whenever he’s onscreen. Bell effectively etches Asael’s quickly earned maturity; Alexa Davalos, Iben Hjejle and Mia Wasikowska all have their warm moments as women who attach themselves to Tuvia, Zus and Asael, respectively; and Ravil Isyanov, as the People’s Army leader, and Martin Hancock, as an ill-mannered lout, stand out among the large supporting cast.
Production’s physical details are well managed, and James Newton Howard’s violin-dominated score provides mournfully moody dramatic backing.