In Defiance Daniel Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, the steely leader of a group of Jews in Belarus who defied the Nazis by hiding in the forest and building a self-contained society. Bielski was a real man and events vaguely resembling what transpires in director Edward Zwick’s drably handled WWII melodrama may have actually happened, but Defiance proudly brandishes the ‘based on a true story’ label without realizing it is more a liability than a blessing. The story’s correlation with reality serves only to remind us that the film’s obvious artifice and blaring inauthenticities sprout from a screenplay that doesn’t just mess with narrative plausibility but also twists and skews history at its convenience.
But not enough, as it turns out, to make an interesting movie. The story of Bielski and his followers constructing a community from the ground-up is a terrific bore, Zwick seemingly helpless as his story swelters in stagnancy for all of the running time bar the opening and closing moments of tense obligatory drama. Defiance brought back painful memories of Zwick’s The Last Samurai, which managed, somewhat impressively, to be both ludicrous and dull.
Bielski is a saviour of the Jews more Robin Hood than Jesus Christ: instead of stealing from the rich to feed the poor his band of not-so-merry men steal from the poor to feed the impoverished. Grabbing the role by the throat, it takes a while for it to sink in that Daniel Craig is playing a Jew and not a Nazi. Craig’s rock-chiselled death-by-glare features naturally present him as a perfect poster boy for the Aryan race: the jagged jaw line and mean grizzled face, the starry blue eyes and sandy blonde hair. Defiance’s screenwriters audaciously paint Bielski as both a freedom fighter and a wannabe pacifist, a man of moral integrity and cutthroat intransigence – the screenplay, in other words, attempts to have it both ways but cannot untangle the contradictions it draws.
“We must get what we need without killing…we must not become like them,” Bielski dictates to his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) a few scenes after plugging three men to avenge the murder of his parents. Throughout the film Craig hollers a series of soapbox speeches interspersed with occasional bursts of battle cry rhetoric, all of it resolutely uninspiring. “Our revenge is to live,” Bielski tells his woebegone followers, his advice perilously close to that old adage “the best revenge is living well,” which we all know is bunk: a more effective revenge, as Bielski amply demonstrates, is a slug or two in the gut or a knuckle sandwich to the face.
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The muddled morality of the protagonist is a big problem for Defiance, though most audiences will grumble about more immediate things – like a story that forever splutters and flounders and action scenes that are spread few and far between.
Defiance’s Australian theatrical release date: April 30, 2009