There's a heavy earnestness to Defiance that is bound to be dividing line between its detractors and its fans. Director Ed Zwick, who never met a historical drama he didn't like, brings his straightforward intensity to the story of the remarkable Bielski brothers, creating a linear, efficient narrative that will appeal to the History Channel fans who want the unadorned facts. But Defiance doesn't go beyond the usual tales of valor and virtue, managing to make an amazing true story feel like yet another dry history lesson.
Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, to their credit, do their best in the lead roles to make Defiance feel like something special. A pair of brothers easily defined as the responsible one (Craig's Tuvia) and the wild one (Schreiber's Zus), they return to their family homestead in Belorussia to find their parents murdered by Nazis, and flee with their younger brothers Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George McKay) to the woods they navigated as children. After striking back against the Nazi officer responsible for killing their parents, Tuvia and Zus vow to live nobly, to make survival their way of fighting back.
Before long they've assembled a colony of refugees in the woods, as more and more Jews get word of the haven that Bielski brothers have established. Tuvia and Zus struggle with a deeply held rivalry, but Zus acts as the muscle of the group--raiding local farms for food, handling occasional scuffles with Nazis-- while Tuvia establishes law and order. Everyone pitches in building shelters, cooking food and hunting, while Zus establishes an alliance with the Russian Army that provides them even more physical protection.
Soon the rift between the brothers drives Zus to fight with the Reds while at the camp Asael falls in love with and marries Chaya (Mia Wasikowska) and Tuvia starts making eyes at a gorgeous, way-too-young-for him forest dweller named Lilka (Alexa Davalos). For a while life just kind of goes on--Tuvia gets sick, someone gets pregnant, a jerk gets shot, but finally the story moves onward when the Nazis discover the camp, and Zus and Tuvia must reunite to save the community that has come to rely on them.
The whole thing ends in a familiar-looking battle that's meant to be climactic, but it takes place in 1942, with three solid years of the Holocaust still left to survive. We're told in end titles what becomes of everyone, including how the Bielskis moved to New York, opened a business like anyone else, and never really talked about their experiences. Talk about leaving out the good part! It's frustrating to think of how much more dynamic the story could have been with a few narrative tricks, like a frame story or flashbacks to keep the fascinating true-life details intact.
By narrowing the focus, Zwick is left with an exceedingly familiar story of survival, the community-building aspects of old Westerns combined with the guns-and-grit morality of every other World War II movie ever made. The challenge of telling this story is to help the audience relate to these people, put in circumstances most of us find unimaginable. Though it's not a typical Holocaust film, Defiance sits at a remove in the same way, letting us marvel at these people but never accessing them as real humans.
Schreiber and Craig are committed in the lead roles, and have a nice chemistry, and Bell keeps growing up before our eyes, showing the makings of a real leading man here. The earthy cinematography from Eduardo Serra and James Newton Howard's generically bombastic score put a classy sheen over the whole thing, and the action scenes are well-staged but a little pedestrian. Again, for some it will be enough just to hear the story, and the basic facts of Defiance are enough to propel it for a while. But the spark, imagination and verve that make great movies worth watching are missing here, and this remarkable story is poorly served as a result.