Belarus 1941, and the Nazis hold over Eastern Europe is becoming more evident, as two Jewish brothers, Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell), watch their village become overrun by anti-semitic forces who include the police of the region, who have no choice but to go along with these new authorities - or so they would claim. The brothers flee unseen by the soldiers and head for their farmhouse only to discover their father dead near the fence, although they do find their youngest sibling, Aron (George Mackay), hiding inside. But where is their older brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig)?
He is in the forest that will become the home of the Bielski brothers, along with many other of their countrymen over the course of the next few years. Jewish freedom fighters in the middle of Nazi-occupied Europe, concealed by the woodland and carrying out guerilla-style attacks on the invaders sounds like the recipe for a ripsnorting adventure, and inspirational to boot, so why does Defiance feel so stolid and unexciting? Could it be the presence of Edward Zwick behind the camera, a socially conscious filmmaker who has a leaden touch with intriguing material?
There's no disputing his sincerity, and the story of the Bielski brothers and the people they saved is one worth telling, just not in a style that renders it looking like a turgid television miniseries with swearing added. The film has a reliable cast, is shot completely on location and is peppered with action sequences where the Nazis get what for, but the approach aims to portray nobility in survival and ends up making everyone come across as a cliché. The self-important dialogue doesn't help much, with the actors spouting humourless exchanges and never really feeling like real personalities, merely vessels for the message.
And it's a worthwhile message, that if you're being persecuted you should not simply roll over and let it happen; at one point the heroes try to persuade a group of Jews from a ghetto to join them and their elders are more keen on staying where they are even on pain of execution if it means they will have a roof over their heads rather than staying out in the open air with winter on its way. This evokes tales that came before the war, such as Moses leading the Jews from Egypt or Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest drawing his forces against the Sheriff of Nottingham, even to more unlilkely comparisons such as the rabbits seeking shelter in Watership Down or Asterix's village holding out against the Romans.
All of which are more thought-provoking as allusions or metaphors than Defiance is in spite of basing its story on true events. Perhaps Zwick was counting on nobody criticising his work as any doing the film down might be mistaken for Nazi sympathy, but this isn't the case. After two hours of samey-looking trees and actors recreating actual suffering, you're more likely to come to the conclusion that the enormity of the Nazi horrors of World War II need far better handling to bring home those atrocities without seeming so pat, and this film fails to do that at almost every turn. A lot of the time such subjects are better served by documentaries, as while the human story of prevailing against terrible odds will always be worth telling, it's stodgy efforts like this that drain the vitality out of their triumphs. Music by James Newton Howard.
[Momentum's Region 2 DVD has a commentary, featurette and trailer as special features.]