As we return to school from the blissfully long winter respite to face another round of exams and overbearing loads of homework, the thought of sitting through this season’s latest Holocaust film may not seem appealing. However, Academy Award-winning director Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond,” “Traffic”) delivers enough passion, action and Hollywood thrill in “Defiance,” which will please most moviegoers.
Based on the novel “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec, the film tells the remarkable true story of three Jewish brothers who built the largest single resistance movement against the Nazis. As Nazi German soldiers hunt for Jews in the dense forests of German-occupied Poland, Tuvia (Daniel Craig, “Quantum of Solace”) adopts the role of a modern-day Moses, taking large groups of Jews under his wing and protecting more than 1,200 people. Forming a community surviving on faith and determination, the story centers predominately on the relationships within the group and a belief that survival is the greatest revenge.
Unlike most patriot resistance groups during the war, where most members were up to the task of fighting off German soldiers if discovered, most of “Tuvia’s Jews” were families with women, children and elderly who desperately needed protection and guidance. But, despite their weaknesses, Tuvia’s compassion for all who were lost formed a strong community willing to protect one another.
Craig does a fair job with the character he is given. He brings to the role of Tuvia Bielski the same gallantry and swagger he carries in his role as the infamous James Bond, but his portrayal is somewhat flat. Zwick brings the appeal of Hollywood into his adaptation of the film through Craig’s character, emphasizing the twinkle of his digitally-enhanced blue eyes and his perfectly “groomed” 5 o’clock shadow.
Surprisingly, it is Liev Schreiber (“Love in the Time of Cholera”), as bad-tempered younger brother Zus, who plays his role with complexity and layers of depth. Anguished over the murder of his wife and child at the hands of German soldiers, Zus faces inner demons, which Schreiber skillfully conveys through the subtlety of an expression or the impulsive throw of a punch. He epitomizes a man brimming with repressed hostility and hopelessness that Craig’s character seems to lack.
Another element that works with great effect in the story is the setting. A character in itself, the scenery peacefully bears witness to the despair and tragedy the hiding Jews face, thrives around them and keeps their hopes alive, protecting them under its branches. The cinematography of the Lithuanian landscapes is breathtakingly beautiful, and the film’s score, composed by James Newton Howard (“The Village”) and accompanied by violinist Joshua Bell, weeps tenderly and compassionately for those fighting for freedom. The cinematography and score alone are enough to move and consume audiences in the emotion of the film.
Zwick brings a previously untold Holocaust story to life with “Defiance,” delivering powerful characters and leaving audiences with a remarkable message of determination, courage and the power of faith.
4 out of 5 stars.