4 May 2009

Movie Review: Defiance


2008, 137mins, R
Director: Edward Zwick
Writer (s): Edward Zwick, Clayton Frohman
Cast includes: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, George MacKay, Allan Corduner, Tomas Arana
Release Date: 16th January 2009

To say I expected more from “Defiance” would be to understate the matter dreadfully. The film is working from a thrilling and thoroughly engaging conceit, has a talented director and boats a polished cast. Yet something about this war set drama just doesn’t click, it feels like an upmarket TV movie, attacking its central themes and ideas in a surprisingly conventional and frustratingly hackneyed manner. There are certainly elements to praise, but overall, “Defiance” is a so-so addition to an already overstuffed genre.

The film occurs in 1941 and is set primarily in the forests of Nazi occupied Belarus. After their family is killed the four Bielski brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George McKay) flee to the local woodland hoping to find solace in it’s densely leafed surrounding. News of this hideaway breaks out and those looking to evade Hitler’s final solution follow the brothers, until something of a small community has amassed in the middle of the forest. As more people arrive, tensions build until eventually Tuvia and Zus clash. Tuvia simply wants to provide a haven for the incoming masses, whilst Zus is baying for revenge and violence. To add to their internal troubles word has spread concerning the Jewish dwelling, and the Nazis are offering a big reward for any locals who can find their hiding place.

The central story in “Defiance” is true, and after a little research even more remarkable than Zwick’s film would have you believe. So how has this seemingly enrapturing tale been melted into such a flat and unremarkable war film? It’s not down to the performers who range from solid to excellent, with particular kudos in the direction of Craig and Schreiber. No, it’s the ineffective and sentimentally uneven screenplay that causes “Defiance” to underachieve, writers Zwick and Frohman discrediting true events with their sub-par interpretation. Instead of accurately trying to recreate characters and situations everything feels built as a slice of old time hokum. It is truly a skill to make events on the scale of “Defiance” feel ordinary and unmemorable, and thus as writers both Zwick and Frohman can at least credit themselves as being good at something.

Craig is the lead performer, Tuvia was at the head of the Bielski camp and so it only seems right that the actor portraying him would headline the feature. In the role Craig is respectable and for the second time in a year elevates himself above the material. Previously it was the mightily disappointing Bond flick “Quantum of Solace” that saw Craig upstage the very feature he was in, so whilst the actor’s2008 was on a wider scale unimpressive, personally he’s fared alright. He gives “Defiance” a genuine sense of solidity and anchors the picture effectively.

The star performer is probably Liev Schreiber, a name fast becoming synonymous with high quality acting. In recent years Schreiber has been involved in several strong features, so whilst “Defiance” isn’t a career highlight, much like Craig he at least manages to use his talent and push above the downtrodden script. As Zus Schreiber creates a convincing relationship with Craig and yet conjures a sense of the highly aggressive and irritably engaging. He’s easily on paper the least agreeable of the four brothers, and yet Schreiber imbues him with a dense of connective humanity. Jamie Bell is underused as Asael, and in truth no other cast member really stands out. There are simply too many half baked characters located in “Defiance” for even the most credible actor to pull out and provide a meaty performance.
As mentioned above the films handling of the story is shockingly unremarkable, the way in which Zwick and co. have chosen to play out proceedings is worrisome in how formulaic it aspires to be. There is absolutely nothing run of the mill about the Bielski story, but in execution the film is limp and unimaginative. It clearly wants to be something more, and honour the brave men who make up the central characters, but ultimately there is not enough flair or emotional engagement for that to be the case.

The movie in a slightly unsuspected and not altogether unappealing fashion, morphs into a chase/action vehicle in the final half hour, which at least drums up the excitement levels. Whilst it’s clearly not what Zwick wanted his film remembered for, “Defiance” serves up a decent set of action beats toward the end. Everything after that is hastily and lazily tied up, but at least in providing a sufficiently exciting finale the experience doesn’t leave an utterly nasty taste in the mouth. Technically it’s been assembled well; indeed one might argue there is more thought and energy in several of Zwick’s camera tricks than in the screenplay. The cinematography is sparse and almost cold, but seeing that would mirror the environments rather perfectly I’m going to assume on the filmmaker’s part it was deliberate.

“Defiance” is for the most part disappointing because it fails to service a story so unique and cinematic, instead turning it into an underwhelming wartime drama. The performances are good and Zwick from a technical standpoint directs competently, but as far as historical epics go, “Defiance” is a hollow shell disguised by the miraculous events on which it’s based.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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