Now Showing at: select theatres.
Review by: Larry Thomas
There seems to be a cluster of films lately dealing with the holocaust: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas; The Reader; Valkyrie; and now Defiance. Logic suggests that after being financially bruised and critically battered by quite a few unsuccessful films about the Iraq war, filmmakers have retreated to the safe, familiar territory of World War II in Europe. In this historical context, they can stir audiences; make whatever statement they want about war, and still get people to come see the films.
Directed by Edward Zwick, who helmed Glory and The Last Samurai, Defiance is also based on a true story, although dramatic license has likely been liberally applied. Daniel Craig, the latest James Bond, Liev Schrieber, a talented character actor, and Jamie Bell, the young star of Billy Elliot, play three Jewish brothers who escape from Poland to the Russian forests to become involved in the resistance movement against the encroaching Nazis. Along the way, other fleeing Jews join them, and all begin a communal village deep in the woods. They do what they need to do in order to survive. The Russian resistance fighters are formidable, and the Nazis are all portrayed as a trampling death force.
While Defiance is a tale of heroism and triumph, it’s one of those films where various parts are better than the whole. At 137 minutes, it tends to drag a bit. Many of the scenes and situations have a “deja vu” feeling, which undermines some of the “true story” aspect. Another minus is that the Nazis and Russians speak their own language with subtitles, while the Jews speak English, which is, at the very least, disconcerting and confusing.
The script does not allow us to know the brothers other than superficially, and the dialogue is ordinary. In several scenes, the action plays out as if it were a Robin Hood movie.
One of the high points of the film is the supporting cast. Other than the three leads, the rest of the players are fresh faces with unknown names, all of which acquit themselves admirably. Defiance is beautifully shot in the countryside and forests of Lithuania by Eduardo Serra, an Oscar-nominated veteran of many fine European films over the past two decades.
Another plus is the excellent, low-key score by James Newton Howard, which was nominated for a Golden Globe. Howard has 115 film credits and seven Oscar nominations without a win. Maybe this will be his year too.
Defiance is not a bad film, not a great film. It has action, heroism, and thought provoking ideas, an excellent cast and more, to help cover up the shortcomings. If the subject matter is to your liking, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy it. Just don’t expect another Schindler's List.