By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — If only “Defiance” were as spirited and feisty as the title suggests. And it held such promise, too.
The real-life story of brothers who lead their fellow Jews into the forest of Belarus during summer 1941 to fight Nazis and form their own community offers a glimpse into a facet of the Holocaust we might not have known about before. Such a new angle is hard to find, especially recently, when there’s been a slew of films with Holocaust themes including “Valkyrie,” “The Reader” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”
But director Edward Zwick’s movie never finds a way to grab you emotionally, despite typically strong performances from Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as two of the Bielski brothers, Tuvia and Zus. It’s as if Zwick was more concerned with making sure we know the movie is about Something Important — which should be obvious based on the subject matter alone — rather than taking any narrative or aesthetic risks or delving into the complexity of the characters.
Tuvia is the stoic leader and protector; younger brother Zus is the bloodthirsty rebel; Jamie Bell, as the youngest of the three, is caught somewhere in the middle. Women who’ve shown up from various villages and walks of life become their “forest wives,” their primary function apparently being to fawn over them and then worry about them when they head off into potential danger. Naturally, Craig gets the most beautiful forest wife of all: the mysterious, blue-eyed Lilka (Alexa Davalos), with whom he shares a tastefully lighted tumble in a bundle of furs. (He is James Bond, after all.)
But the Bielskis also get help, as their ranks grow, from refugees from all over who’ve heard about their hidden village and want to hide, forge a new life and, eventually, fight back — everyone from carpenters to intellectuals. The rare moments of comic relief come from their attempts to fool nearby villagers out of their food.
Otherwise, there’s something too muted, too respectful and, ultimately, too didactic about Zwick and Clayton Frohman’s script, based on the book by Nechama Tec. It’s a great story told in a remarkably unremarkable way.
You’re more likely to walk away feeling wowed by the romantic cinematography from veteran Eduardo Serra (who also shot Zwick’s “Blood Diamond”), with its lush green meadows that give way to blinding whites as winter envelops the ever-growing encampment. Snow delicately falling on a makeshift huppah during a young couple’s wedding is one moment that springs to mind.
Beautiful as “Defiance” is, though, it almost makes you long for a documentary on the subject instead. You might actually get some meat and grit with your history lesson.
“Defiance,” a Paramount Vantage release, is rated R for violence and language. Running time: 137 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.