Defiance - film review

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The first five minutes of Edward Zwick’s epic film Defiance map out a story that he has spent the best part of a decade trying to tweak from Nechama Tec’s novel. The love and care is as raw and grainy as the performances by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell as three brothers who assembled a partisan band of Jewish resistance fighters in western Belorussia and decided to fight back against the Nazis.

This guerrilla campaign gives the film a heroic value and power that the real-life Bielskis never felt the urge to claim. That fact alone makes the film a treacherous watch. The performances are gripping. The story is truly ghostly. The Bielski brothers flicker across the screen as grubby, working-class, indeed ignorant, partisans. As the German witch-hunts draw closer, they shrink ever deeper into the vast unmapped forests. They live hand to mouth. They rob rich farmers at pistol point to feed a growing commune of desperate refugees.

Zwick’s film is absolutely brilliant (and horrible) about the brute business of survival. There are elderly men, women and children who cling to these unruly but idealistic heroes like leeches. The winter bites. Food runs out. The tensions between the increasingly ruthless brothers become toxic. A rival tribe of Russian mercenaries pour scorn on this Jewish tribe.

What’s impressive about the film is the sense of ensemble. Craig plays the conflicted leader, Tuvia Bielski, with his usual chilly charisma. The attacks on his decisions and confidence are orchestrated silently and subtly by Schreiber’s bloodythirsty middle brother, Zus. But it is the youngest brother, Asael, played by Jamie Bell, who provides the eyes and ears of the story.

He is the anguished soul trapped between the rock-hard egos of his brothers. But he is not averse to a little speechifying of his own when push comes to dramatic climax. When Schreiber stomps off to join the Russians in a huff, it is Bell who weeps for us when they are reunited. I too shed a tear as the bickering brothers wrapped oily arms around each other after stopping a Panzer tank dead in its tracks with pure, nutty, selfless disregard for the extras.

What’s unique about the film is that it celebrates a lost chapter of Jewish resistance...

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