The time is 1941. The place: Belorussia (currently known as Belarus). The Nazis are pushing into the Soviet Union, and as they capture territory and impose their will, they also hunt down Jews for deportation, internment, and extermination. The only path to evade and possibly escape the Germans is to hide in the dense forests that cover much of the Belorussian landscape. And that's where the four Bielski brothers – Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Aron (George MacKay) – and a few other refugees set up camp. Soon, they're joined by dozens of other fleeing Jews, and as they develop a tight-knit colony, they work together against impossible odds to beat back the enemy and preserve their freedom. "Our revenge," says Tuvia, "is to live."
'Defiance' is based on a true story, and director Edward Zwick (who co-wrote the screenplay with Clayton Frohman) admirably sticks close to the facts, painting a realistic portrait of both the period and the challenges these brave Jews faced. (Not only did they fear the encroaching Germans, but also Russian collaborators, who didn't think twice about betraying them for money or favored status.) The straightforward storytelling never tries to sell a pre-packaged agenda or manipulate our emotions, and Zwick deserves kudos for maintaining an even-keeled tone throughout. Though it would be easy to instantly canonize the Bielskis and their brood, Frohman and Zwick resist the temptation, and don't shy away from depicting their flaws. The Cain-and-Abel relationship between the two eldest brothers, Tuvia and Zus, forms the crux of the story, and the script balances it well against the larger backdrop of war. Zus is an activist and wants to fight the Germans, while Tuvia ardently believes in peaceful defiance. "We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals," Tuvia says. The clash in ideology forms a rift that becomes a chasm, and threatens to disrupt the colony's stability.
Yet unfortunately, such familial tensions and the ever-present danger lurking behind the trees and across the streams isn't enough to adequately sustain 'Defiance' over the course of its languorous 136-minute running time. The film starts well and ends well (the climactic battle sequence is especially well done), but the middle can be a chore to get through. Because Zwick presents the story as an ensemble piece, no single tale receives enough attention to fully engage our emotions. We root for the group as a whole, of course, and respect and admire their accomplishments and resiliency, but rarely get under the skin of any individual characters, the Bielskis included. The deliberate pacing takes its toll over time, and though 'Defiance' is never boring per se, it definitely drags in places. It remains inspiring, but it lacks passion.
Zwick is an accomplished, underrated director, who has produced a number of memorable works. 'Glory' and 'Blood Diamond' are two of his finest films, and both evoke visceral responses. 'Defiance' doesn't, but it seems as if that's Zwick's intention. Instead of sapping our emotions, he wants to stir our souls. This is a tale of strength and courage, where Jews are portrayed as fighters and survivors instead of powerless victims heartlessly led to the slaughter, and Zwick conveys their fortitude well. Like the Frank and Van Daan families in 'The Diary of Anne Frank,' the Bielskis and those around them live in fear, but they don't exhibit fear, and their grace under fire and the support and devotion they show each other is the fuel on which the film runs.
The mileage it gets, however, is limited. Despite fine performances, the film often seems almost as aimless as the Jews wandering through the forest. Some judicious editing would make the refugees' plight more immediate and involving, while remaining true to their experiences, and still evoking the hardship, drudgery, and fatigue they endured. Occasionally, Zwick's direction gets a little heavy-handed, and a lot of the dialogue is trite. Yet Craig and company act with conviction and create believable characters. Schreiber disappears inside his role, and Craig is excellent, too. It's fitting that after two hard-edged, violent turns as James Bond, he portrays a man who – after a devastating act of revenge – only advocates violence as a means of defense. And it's a tribute to his talent that we rarely make a Bond connection while watching this film.
The Bielskis helped save hundreds of Jewish lives, which multiplied exponentially over subsequent generations, and 'Defiance' pays long overdue tribute to their heroic deeds. Zwick puts together a good film, but unfortunately, not a great one. Still, 'Defiance' is well worth watching, both for the history it imparts and the humanity it promotes.
'Defiance' is an outdoorsy film, and the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer from Paramount often reflects the harsh elements the characters must endure. Don't get me wrong; this is a crisp, blemish-free rendering that's distinguished by a good deal of dimensionality and texture, but stark overtones lend the picture an intentional roughness that's quite effective. A nice smattering of grain enhances this natural look, but never inhibits clarity, which is first-rate across the board. Close-ups especially shine, exhibiting marvelous detail in the men's dirty, stubbly, scratched-up faces – we can even clearly see a small pimple on Craig's nose toward the end of the film – and brief flashes of 3-D pop. Contrast occasionally leans on the bright side, but is generally well pitched, lending the image solid depth and an expansive feel that immerses us in the cold, unforgiving atmosphere.
The picture's main anomaly is a faint bluish cast that's a bit odd and distracting. It may be a device to slightly mute the color palette to make the forestry look less lush and emphasize the hardships facing the characters, but I feel it adds a hint of artifice to an otherwise very genuine piece of work. Other than forest green (and a lot of brown and gray), there aren't many colors on display, save for Craig's steely blue eyes, which often attract more than their fair share of attention. (Eat your heart out, Paul Newman.) For the most part, though, hues look realistic and blend nicely into the film's fabric. Black levels are dense, but night scenes never look murky and don't exhibit any digital noise, and fleshtones are spot-on.
This is a strong effort from Paramount that really serves the film well and should look terrific on any home display.
A forceful Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track also complements the disc and brings the violence and destruction of war into our living rooms. What I really like about the audio of 'Defiance' is the well-integrated bass; warm, soulful low-end frequencies permeate James Newton Howard's music score, adding marvelous tonal depth, while also providing palpable rumbles when the Germans drop bombs or thunderstorms rage. Though most of the sonic action is rooted in the front channels, enough ambience pours out of the rear speakers to make for a pleasing surround experience. Rain showers nicely envelop, as do such typical forest sounds as tweeting birds and rustling trees. Gunfire is crisp and explosive, but more delicate nuances also come through cleanly. Dialogue is always appropriately prioritized, so every word can be understood, and volume mixing is well within comfortable parameters – quiet scenes don't require amplification and battle scenes are never ear-bruising.
Though long stretches of the track don't exhibit much in the way of sonic flash, the audio is solid from beginning to end, and really impresses during the film's most active sequences.
A decent lineup of supplements add perspective to the film, and are presented in high-def.
'Defiance' is far from Edward Zwick's best film, but the director tells this inspirational true story of Jewish resistance in World War II in a forthright, unsentimental manner that's often quite effective. Though a bit draggy in spots, 'Defiance' still holds our interest, and makes us marvel at the courage, resilience, and undying will of a persecuted people. Strong video and audio transfers and decent extras help distinguish this disc, which may not warrant a purchase, but is certainly worth a look.
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