Director    Edward Zwick
Starring    Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Iddo Goldberg
Release    16 JAN (US) 9 JAN (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


12th January 2009

The story of the Bielski brothers and their resistance movement is not a famous one and isn't taught in GCSE history like Oskar Schindler's, despite the fact that they were responsible for the survival and protection of a similar number of Jews during WWII. Defiance, co-written and directed by Oscar-winner Edward Zwick, is the first film to bring their story to the masses but is a patchy adaptation of the 1993 book of the same name.

The film begins with two of the brothers, Zus (Schreiber) and Asael (Bell), returning to their village to find every Jew, including their mother and father, slaughtered by the local Nazi-allied police force. They discover their youngest brother Aron (George MacKay), hiding and terrified; so terrified that he only speaks four lines in the whole movie. They high-tail it to the forest, believing themselves the sole survivors. The next day their eldest brother Tuvia (Craig) discovers them, having returned to the village unexpectedly and seen the devastation for himself.

Bearing in mind this is a true story, or at least based thereon, what follows is truly remarkable. Through accident and occasional design, the brothers find themselves leading and protecting first a few, and then hundreds, of other itinerant Jews who have fled their own villages for the Belarusian Forest. They stay there for two years, becoming weapons-trained and fighting when they have to, taking from locals to feed themselves, but only in a Robin Hood, "take from those who can afford it" style.

It is an astounding, and relatively unknown story, and should have been a glorious, stirring film paying tribute to bravery and determination in the face of almost certain death. Instead, it is a flat and occasionally confusing mishmash that lacks depth and vigour. There is an initial burst of bloodthirsty vengeance that is quashed when the brothers fear for Asael's life, but it is bizarrely filmed so you don't really know who they're shooting or why.

At one point the camp is split, Zus taking the best fighters to join up with the local arm of the Red Army, and that's where the film really loses its plot. It becomes both a Boy's Own adventure story of catching Nazis with tripwires and Call Of Duty-like missions into occupied villages, whilst at the same time dealing with survival and sacrifice, as the members of the camp find themselves freezing, starving and occasionally wandering in the vast forest like... well... Jews. One heavy-handed scene has our band of Ray Mears wannabes coming to a standstill after days of wandering, in front of a seemingly impassable sea of swamps.

The acting is adequate, Craig's accent however is wobbly at best, veering quite close to Connery in The Hunt For Red October, and he seems to have finagled a Bond Girl clause into his contract that gives us him and a beautiful woman, limbs entwined, by firelight. Schreiber, therefore, is the closing thing Defiance has to a hero; his accent is excellent, his performance of Angry Man given with a degree of subtlety; even the little humour in the film comes from him.

Defiance is not a fitting tribute to the survival of the 1,200 Bielski Partisans, but it is at least a start.

More:  Drama  Thriller  War
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