Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, George McKay, Alexa Davalos
Director: Edward Zwick
Category: IIB (English and Russian)
There's a scene early in Defiance in which Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber), the two partisans leading a community of Jews living in the forest in Belarus during the second world war, discover that their younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell), who has been missing for days, has evaded his German captors by hiding in a hay-covered underground shelter.
As the two older Bielskis help him out, they discover two young Jewish women with Asael, visibly traumatised by their near brush with death. 'So you've been busy, huh?' says Zus to Asael, as if he has been caught doing something naughty during a game of hide-and-seek.
It's something you wouldn't expect even the most frivolous individual to say in that situation, given the Bielskis have only recently seen their parents slaughtered by the Nazis' local proxies, and have since spent months on the run and living in the woods, first fearing for their lives and then becoming resistance fighters.
The exchange epitomises Defiance's major flaw: however much director Edward Zwick tries to emphasise that the Bielskis' story is true - the film begins with grainy footage of Adolf Hitler and Nazi pogroms, with 'a true story' on the screen - the film goes in another direction altogether.
Zwick fills the screen with action-flick machismo, damsels in distress, a montage of scenes juxtaposing joyful scenes from a wedding and a bloody gunfight, and a grand finale that explicitly alludes to the biblical tale of Moses crossing the Red Sea.
What's remarkable about the Bielskis' wartime community is the way they tried to instil normalcy into their lives. Historians such as Nechama Tec, whose book inspired Zwick's project, have mentioned how schools, hospitals, workshops and even courts were established within their settlement, and how these survivors - more than 1,200 of whom lived through the war - strived to maintain a social code. Perhaps this is what drove Zwick to pepper the proceedings with humour, shown in the way Tuvia mocks the nerdy Isaac (Mark Feuerstein) for saying he's an intellectual by profession, or how the latter bickers with elderly schoolteacher Shamon (Allan Corduner) about the tyrannical qualities of Hitler and Stalin by comparing the sizes of their moustaches.
Such scenes feel contrived, and this is not helped by the way Zwick plays up the sibling rivalry between the contemplative Tuvia and robust firebrand Zus. After a bust-up, the latter leaves with several in the group to join the more organised but inherently anti-semitic Russian partisans - and tensions surround the romances that blossom between the three elder Bielskis and some of the young women in their charge (and, yes, Asael does marry one of the young women who was trapped in the rabbit hole with him).
Craig's presence doesn't help. Casting aside his fluctuating accent, which goes from distinctly clipped English at the start to another British variety as he lectures his flock about the need to be united in a cause - his performance here seems saddled with his James Bond persona, as he blasts away his foes in battle and delivers one-liners in the style of a stoic action hero. Both Craig (above wth Alexa Davalos) and Zwick seem to be of two minds about how to position their work here, and Defiance suffers, as it emerges like something between Schindler's List and Rambo, but without neither the proper characterisation nor the gung-ho bravura that could make this coherent and complete.
Defiance opens today