Paramount Vantage
At Quality 16 and Showcase

2.5 out of 5 Stars

“Defiance” tells the remarkable true story of the Bielski brothers, Belarussians who hid over 1,200 Jews for several years during World War II. The film opens with the brothers — Tuvia (Daniel Craig, “Quantum of Solace”,) Zus (Liev Schreiber, “The Omen”) and Asael (Jamie Bell, “Billy Elliot”) — returning home to find their parents and neighbors slaughtered by Nazi officers. Fueled by rage, the brothers take to the woods and eventually find themselves charged with guarding the lives of other Jewish exiles, whose origins remain largely unknown.

Though Craig’s performance has been the most heralded, it’s Schrieber who gives the most fleshed-out delivery. His desire to save Jews is eclipsed only by his desire to kill Germans, placing him in direct contrast to Tuvia, who believes the focus of their mission should be survival, not murder. The strife between the two siblings becomes the film’s main conflict, and for some time it seems to be less about Nazis versus Jews and more about brother versus brother. Eventually, the intense competition between Tuvia and Zus comes to a head as Zus abandons the forest exiles to fight on the side of the Russian army.

That’s not to say that Nazis don’t come into play sporadically. Brief but harrowing action scenes show the camp being bombed and shot up by German soldiers. Still, the real drama comes from the scenes within the camp. The film sets up several subplots — a woman trying to hide her pregnancy, a possible rebellion within the camp — but, with a large cast, it has trouble addressing them thoroughly. Instead, “Defiance” chooses to focus on the romances between Asael and Chaya (Mia Wasikowska, TV’s “In Treatment”), and Tuvia and Lilka (Alexa Davalos, “The Mist”). The love stories seem to be a primarily Hollywood-sponsored move; the studio heads probably figured that most audiences would need some good romance between all the scenes of violence and sadness.

The film trips up in its inability to focus more on its title subject: defiant Jews who actually fought back against the Nazis (and pretty successfully too). They forged a life within the woods that resembles nothing of the life they had been forced to leave behind. In the camp, those who were once parents and professionals join together as freedom fighters.

If the film chose to devote more time to the inspiring resistance, perhaps there wouldn’t be such a disconnect between the characters and the audience. “Defiance” should be a story of the resiliency of the human spirit; when the film focuses on resistance and survival, it works. But, frustratingly, it refuses to dwell there for too long, choosing instead to become something akin to any run-of-the-mill action film dotted with shallow romance. Director Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond” and “The Last Samurai”), may be to blame: his penchant for action often sidetracks a strong focus on real people.

Though some of the film seems too grandiose to be authentic, the true impact of the story fully emerges at the end. Because of these brothers, 1,200 Jews were saved from the Nazis. Their survival story is far more awe-inspiring than any big-budget Hollywood action scene could ever be. Unfortunately, “Defiance” fell victim to this inevitable pitfall.

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