Screenwriters: Clayton Frohman, Edward Zwick
Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, George MacKay, Alexa Davalos
Running Time: 137 mins
World War II drama Defiance goes against the Hollywood grain, portraying a real-life community of Jews who took an active role in deciding their fate rather than be numbered amongst the victims. Daniel Craig leads the flock as Tuvia Bielski, one of three brothers who escaped Nazi clutches to establish a hideout in the Belorussian woodland they'd known since childhood. Director Ed Zwick fails to justify the epic running time, but as ever, Craig is a riveting presence. Not only must he fend off enemy soldiers, he must also battle to keep his own animal instincts at bay.
In a chaotic opening sequence, Tuvia's father is murdered and he's overwhelmed by a thirst for bloody revenge. He quickly satisfies the urge before disappearing into the forest where he is joined by his brothers Zus (an even more hot-headed Liev Schreiber) and youthful optimist Asael (Jamie Bell). On a brief incursion into the village to seek food, Tuvia is then persuaded to lead more men, women and children to his forest sanctuary. Word quickly spreads and their numbers grow so that Tuvia, against his intentions, is suddenly burdened with leadership.
There are hints that Tuvia was an outlaw in his former life and that the Bielskis were generally looked-down upon. Sadly Zwick doesn't spend enough time drawing the difference between who Tuvia was and who he becomes. It's largely left to Craig to emote that heavy sense of loneliness which comes with his gradual ascent to power. As the hard winter sets in and petty squabbles break out over food, Tuvia must work harder to keep order. He also delivers rousing speeches, assuring the people that, "We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals." It's in quiet reflection that Tuvia is more interesting though, seeming to be nagged by doubt.
Tuvia's edging towards a loss of faith culminates in a distressing scene where a Nazi officer is literally torn to pieces by the angry mob. Tuvia looks on, impassive. By this time Zus has left to take up with a nearby deployment of Russian partisans (after an über macho bout of sibling rivalry) and even the sensitive Asael becomes hardened to the chaos. But, in a carefully measured performance by Bell, he also coaxes Tuvia out of his stupor. Our hero is given another reason to carry on in the shape of Alexa Davalos as his 'forest wife' Lilka. Flashes of humour also play a part in lifting morale, including a long-running joke about the lookout who's always looking the other way.
Whenever the script reaches a crossroads, Zwick falls back on dramatic cliché. Lilka nurses Tuvia through a fever that weakens his resolve, but beyond her compassion, there is little else to the character. And holding the line with the Russians, Zus is only faced with anti-Semitism when it comes to the point of having to choose to retreat with them or face the oncoming Germans. That final stand-off makes for a conventional last act - a clear-cut battle of good vs. evil. Given that Zwick has spent so much time painting Tuvia in shades of grey, it seems like a moral lapse. And the repeated references to Moses leading his people to the promised land (with machineguns!) border on sacrilegious. Ultimately, it's not the saintliness of Tuvia that strikes a chord but the human flaws that Zwick shies away from and which Craig so fully embraces.
> What do you think of the movie? Share your views