Dir: Edward Zwick. US. 2008. 129 mins.
In trying to add a new chapter to the long history of films made about the Holocaust, Defiance can barely move a narrative muscle without bumping into another, better movie that covers some of the same ground. Based on the true story of three Eastern-European brothers who led a ragtag army of fellow Jews to fight back against the Nazis, this action-drama from director Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai) is weighed down by muted performances, an unsparingly solemn tone and an overall lack of creative spark.
Opening in limited release at the end of the year in the US before expanding in 2009, Defiance hopes to continue director Edward Zwick's track record of producing profitable, critically-acclaimed epics that entice mainstream audiences while garnering Oscar nominations for his cast. But without a strong marketing angle - and perhaps burdened by lukewarm reviews - this Paramount Vantage release may find itself buried amid the rush of Oscar-season contenders all jostling for attention. Defiance star Daniel Craig has marquee value thanks to his involvement in the James Bond franchise, but it's unknown whether he has the same box-office clout as previous Zwick leading men Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington.
Set in 1941, Defiance is centred around three Jewish brothers who live in Belarus and are forced to flee the Nazis after the murder of their parents. Retreating to nearby forests, Zus (Schreiber) wants to strike back at the Germans, but his older brother Tuvia (Craig) doesn't want them to become barbarous like their enemies. Jamie Bell plays younger brother Aseal.
The disagreement between the two older brothers splits the family, with Tuvia deciding to build a community of displaced Jews in the woods, while hotheaded Zus joins the Russian partisan camps to wage war against the Nazis.
Adapting Nechama Tec's nonfiction book of the same name, producer-director-co-writer Zwick tries to rewrite the standard view of World War II movies in which Jews are always helpless, dramatising a real story about Jews who defended themselves and fought back. But while the source material offers a new way to look at this, Zwick hasn't figured out a compelling angle from which to view that story.
Zwick and co-writer Clayton Frohman have shaped their screenplay as a rather obvious battle of wills between the soft-spoken, pacifist Tuvia and the argumentative, hawkish Zus, but neither character develops much beyond being a symbol for his particular worldview. And with the film clearly favouring Tuvia's way of thinking, there's no tension to the brothers' feud since Zwick's tone makes it pretty obvious early on which character will be proven right.
Since Defiance views the two brothers as simply talking heads for different ideologies, Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber have a tough time with the material, not helped by the fact that Craig's naturally brooding magnetism clashes with the reserve of his indecisive character, while Schreiber is too cerebral a performer to portray a one-dimensional bear of a man who rarely thinks before acting.
The rest of the cast seems equally dispirited, falling into bland supporting-character archetypes within Tuvia's forest community, like the blindly supportive love interest (Davalos) or the wimpy intellectual (Feuerstein).
Zwick's films have a reputation for impressive spectacle that can overwhelm their earnest, slightly cornball narratives, but Defiance is so sober-minded that even its few action sequences fail to add much excitement to the proceedings. Obviously, the filmmaker wanted to keep the battle scenes from being too exhilarating, lest he undercut his message about the pitfalls of violence, but by resisting his instinctive ability to create rousing action, Zwick has made a film that aims for a thoughtful, mature tone but ends up feeling stolid.
In keeping with Defiance's aura of prestige and solemnity, cinematographer Eduardo Serra and costume designer Jenny Beavan drape the film in drab browns, grays and greens. Composer James Newton Howard's score hits all the predictable notes, especially when Tuvia steels himself to give an inspiring sermon to the troops, while Joshua Bell's stark violin solos somewhat overdo the gravitas during scenes of death and carnage.
1-310 550 9100
Pieter Jan Brugge
(based upon the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec)
James Newton Howard