Defiance certainly isn't the first film to deal with the Nazi regime of World War II. Plenty have told the story in the way they want to tell it; some work, some don't. But what's compelling right off the bat about Edward Zwick's Defiance is both that it's a true story and one never really told before in film. It's set in WWII that, yes, deals with the ways the Nazis treated the Jewish people, but it's more about survival than it is about fighting back. It's this core aspect which saves the film, even in moments that are unrealistic, unnecessary, or annoyingly preachy.
Defiance is set during WWII in Belarus, and tells the story of the Beilski brothers – Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Aron (George McKay) – who are forced to go into hiding in the woods after the rest of their family is killed. But soon after they are out on their own, other Jewish refugees hiding out in the woods are drawn to the brothers for help. All of the people must stick together to survive the harsh cold, the starvation and the disease which afflicts them, all the while constantly watching out for and trying to evade the German army which hunts them.
What will almost always carry a film like this is a true, humanistic story. So even when Defiance falters during preachy and unrealistically heroic scenes of fighting back against the German army, it still has a heart crucially running through it. It's then a touching film, at times a powerful one, but only in intermittent stages. For every emotional scene of heartbreak or tough times there's another which sees Craig's heroic Tuvia, the naturally appointed leader of the group of survivors, standing in front of everyone, giving a unrealistically noble speech. It was obviously something hard to resist including, as this is such an uplifting, life-affirming story to tell, but the film unfortunately feels the need to have a preachy speech (one which eye-rollingly sees Craig on top of a white horse delivering it) at predictable, checkpoint stages.
Although thankfully more preoccupied with telling the tale of how these people survived rather than battling back against the German army, it still sometimes unfortunately has some full-on, frankly distracting battle scenes where, for example, the survivors manage to overpower the soldiers, killing them with their own guns or planning and carrying out revenge on those who killed the Beilski's parents. Although well choreographed and exciting enough (which Zwick has had experience of with the likes of The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond), it nonetheless takes away from the basic, far more interesting survival story at its core.
The performances are all very good, from everyone from the leads played by Craig, Schreiber and Bell right down to the smallest of background actors. What pleasantly surprised me, particularly about Craig, was how convincing the accents put on were. You would think that after playing James Bond, one of the most iconic movie characters of all time, that you'd never been able to see him as anything else. But Craig is entirely convincing as the Jewish hero, putting on such a believable accent that if you didn't know who he was beforehand you'd think was his natural one. I'm really glad he's being diverse in choosing something other big-budget action spectacle like the Bond movies.
Supporting him, although still getting a big chunk of screen time, is Jamie Bell, an actor who has always been a likeable one, no matter the role he's playing, and he continues on with that in the role which audiences will probably sympathise with the most. But who gives the most memorable performance is not Craig or Bell, but Liev Schreiber as the more aggressive, forceful older brother who doesn't like taking no for an answer. Part of the film concentrates entirely on his side of the story and you get so engrossed in it you almost forget about everyone else.
The advertisements for Defiance are somewhat misleading. They put emphasis on the gung-ho aspect of it, showing scenes of the survivors fighting back. And although it's understandable as it's more likely to draw in audiences, the film is about something else, something more than that. It's a touching and heroic story of survival, and as the title suggests, defiance against what was expected of the Jewish people during WWII: to do what they're told and, ultimately, to die. And just I'm glad there's films out there that let us all know such things are possible and actually happened in real life.
These are the kind of stories that connect with people, that give them something a little extra that they can cling onto and believe; it's the reason films like The Shawshank Redemption and It's A Wonderful Life are so universally popular. And although Defiance will definitely not go down in film history with a reputation like those two, it's still nice to know that such films are being made in this day and age. If the film had been a little more true to the powerful story at its base, instead of diverting to obligatory action scenes, then it might have had a more long lasting, emotional effect that would be remembered for a long time. As it is Defiance is satisfying in its telling of a worthy story but never fully wows as it should.