Our Rating: 3 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
In a time when it was "every man for himself," one courageous family undertook the responsibility of saving as many Russian Jews from the Nazis as they could...
Russia has been invaded by Germany and its Jewish citizens are being slowly "taken care of." Some are put in local ghettos and others -- any who resist arrest -- are killed and left to rot. Such is the fate of the parents of Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Aron (George MacKay) Bielski. The brothers were out and about and returned to find the family farm terrorized. Zus swears vengeance on the men responsible, but that violence is not possible until the arrival of his elder brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig). A natural leader, Tuvia intends to hide his family out in the woods until hostilities end and it is safe to be seen in public again. Within days, other persecuted Jews wander into their encampment and before he knows it, he has several hundred hungry mouths to feed. Taking the pistol a neighbor kindly gives him and using it to avenge his parents' death, he mobilizes the Jews and creates a "save haven" for them in the wood. By night, he and his brothers slip out and beg, borrow, or steal food from neighboring farms. But soon it becomes more than about survival... he becomes determined to save as many as he can.
The arrival of women in the encampment puts an added twist on things and his brother Asael starts showing a fondness for the sweet and demure Chaya (Mia Wasikowska). Meanwhile, her friend Tamara (Jodhi May) is hiding a secret that will potentially endanger them all, and news is trickling in from all over Russia that their friends and families are being destroyed.
Defiance is both a very sad film and one full of hope, because it shows a "life camp" rather than a death camp. This approach is inventive and it does tell a story that is not often heard -- what happened to the Russian Jews. WWII films are never pleasant to watch and this one is no exception -- many people die, sacrifices are made, difficult choices are undertaken for the good of everyone, and we grow to respect the man in charge if not always agree with his choices. I am not a fan of Daniel Craig but he commands the part of Tuvia with an astonishing depth; his steely resolve and dangerous undercurrent is perfect for the role of a man capable of doing anything to protect the people in his life. It never quite allows us to see his compassion but does make him formidable. Liev Schreiber is a terrific counter balance for him and although they spend half the movie apart, once Zus begins to fight with the Socialist Regime, the strong family bond is apparent. There are other great performances but a shout-out must be made to the women; they have a limited amount of screen time and not much to do, but somehow the audience connects with each of them on an emotional level.
Overall, I felt the film was a little long but this also allowed us to come to know some of the characters personally -- the teacher, the rabbi, the scholar. There are charming little moments of quiet and calm amidst the violence and that may be why some people did not like it -- it is slow moving when not dealing with raids and defending the camp, but also offers a substantial amount of violence. I am never entirely comfortable with brutality and this is no exception -- men and women on both sides are gunned down, some at close range. Blood spurts and sprays. Bombs drop and explosions go off. The body count is enormous. Zus takes revenge for his parents' deaths by shooting the men responsible point-blank at their dinner table, in front of their horrified wife/mother. More unnerving is a scene in which a German soldier is beaten to death in the encampment; we see them striking him with rifle buts and sticks and then converging on him amidst his screams. Dead bodies are shown piled in a ditch (nude, but no details are visible). Animal lovers should know that a dog is shot and killed after it attacks someone; it's implied that Tuvia must kill his beloved horse to feed them all (we hear a gunshot). There are five f-words, one harsh abuse of deity, and a few scattered scatological references. The drinking of wine is prevalent. Upon arrival in the camp, the women quickly "pair off" with the men and choose "forest husbands" (for protection against other men). These are presumably intimate relationships; one woman offers herself to a man in exchange for his protection and places his hand on her breast. Tuvia later becomes involved with a woman; they are shown in an intimate setting, covered in blankets and snuggling with one another. Asael and Chaya choose marriage instead. One woman reveals she was raped at gunpoint trying to escape; she has a child due to this cruelty.
Some WWII films are "great" and others are just "good." I liked Defiance in the sense that it approached a difficult topic with an immense amount of respect and revealed a story not many of us are familiar with. But it has also aroused some controversy revolving around its "heroes" -- historians will tell you that many of their actions were not as heroic as the film would imply, and that some cinematic liberties were taken in allowing them to retaliate against the German army. In my opinion, this is not a glossing over of their faults so much as underlining the fact that through their influence, courage, and sacrifices, the Bielski family assisted 1,200 of their fellow countrymen in surviving the single most terrible eradication of Jews in history. Other "life camps" refused to take women, children, and the elderly for fear it would "slow them down" in escaping, but the Bielskis never turned anyone away. Whether or not they were blameless in all their actions, this particular story is about that single incident of heroism, and for older viewers capable of tolerating the film's brutality, it is a rewarding glimpse into the past and a reminder of the tremendous price that was paid to save the lives of a few.