‘Defiance’ movie review: Daniel Craig in harrowing WWII story

Harrowing and initially fascinating, Edward Zwick’s Defiance eventually devolves into the routine over its second half – much like the director’s two previous films, Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai

Still, that doesn’t outweigh the all the good that’s on showcase here, a compelling portrait of a community of Jews struggling to survive as a guerrilla partisan group in Belorussian forests in 1941.

Daniel Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski, who along with brothers Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and young Aron (George MacKay), takes to the forest after the rest of their family has been slaughtered in Eastern Poland (now Belarus). 

The four brothers soon meet other Jews taking refuge in the forests, and unite with them despite concerns of being able to care for too many others. 

Tuvia returns to the village to take revenge on those responsible for killing his family, but soon after he returns, and the group of outcasts increases, he realizes his responsibility is to protect and care for his people, rather than, as other partisan groups and resistance fighters in the area, attack German forces.

As their numbers continue to grow, Tuvia takes charge of the ‘Bielski Partisans,’ causing some conflict with brother Zus, who has different ideas about how things should be run. Eventually, Zus and others leave the group to fight alongside Russian resistance fighters in the area, and have to deal with their passive anti-Semitism.

Defiance tells a true story, or as true as Hollywood can make it, and over some closing captions we learn that 1200 members of the Bielski Partisans survived the war by living in the forests for years, and that Zus and Tuvia emigrated to the US and started a trucking business in New York City, and that they never sought recognition for their actions.

This is fascinating material, and a story that needs to be told. The first half of Defiance, as the partisan group struggles to adjust to their new lives, and weighs their moral options, does justice to the story. 

A second half, complete with a telegraphed climax that feels ripped from your standard action/war movie, does not. The film also ends on a rather strange note, with years of war yet to come.

Thick Polish/Russian accents are employed throughout, mostly effectively, though Schreiber occasionally stands out. Still, they’re much less distracting than the complete lack of accents in Valkyrie.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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