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Flawed ‘Defiance’ fails to tell Bielski story

Liz Harter | Sunday, February 1, 2009

When the four Bielski brothers escaped from the Nazis in Belarus in 1941, it’s unlikely that any of them ever thought the subsequent four years of their lives would be made into a major motion picture 68 years later. But that’s exactly what “Defiance” is – only problem is, it’s just a bad major motion picture.

Looking at trailers for the movie, one would think they were going to see an action-adventure movie complete with Daniel Craig (a.k.a. the current James Bond) as Tuvia Bielski, blowing stuff up, shooting people, dodging bombs and bullets from the Nazis and grittily leading a group of exiled Jews in a foreign forest.

Apparently, the viewer is supposed to not remember that a blond-haired, blue-eyed actor is playing someone who’s Jewish. The filmmakers tried to keep Craig’s hair filled with dirt for most of “Defiance” – which makes sense, as the film is set in a forest – but it’s clear that he remains a blond for unknown reasons. Plus, there’s no covering up those electric blues.

If you can get past the fact that Craig is probably one of the most Aryan looking Jews in film history, you won’t be disappointed. Viewers can watch Tuvia stoically face whatever is thrown his way with his brothers Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell, “Billy Elliott”) and Aaron (George MacKay, “Peter Pan”).

The film follows the trials facing the Bielski brothers as they work to keep their camp of Jews hidden from the ensuing political turmoil. The camp needs protection, food, shelter and religion, and the Bielskis manage to provide it all, giving the Jews a sense of community and family.

While Craig does well with what the script gives him, Schreiber deserves the most praise for managing at least one laugh-free take during one of the film’s more absurd scenes.

At one point, his girlfriend, Bella – who largely disappears after this scene, only to reappear at a later point – is discussing “protection” with him. She wants to know why the women don’t have guns, and Schreiber says the men will protect the women. In one of the many awkward displays of affection that abound in “Defiance,” Bella then tells him she needs his protection while ungracefully moving his hand to her breast.

The viewer is seemingly supposed to assume that this gesture implies the two are in love or a relationship, or that he is her “forest husband.” The “forest husband” concept pops up repeatedly throughout the film, as those living in the forest community substitute a “forest relationship” for what they left behind in the city.

While it is obvious within the first five minutes that Craig and Schreiber are the stars of the movie, Bell holds his own alongside the two with a secondary plot of finding love in the Bielski camp. He meets and marries Chaya Dziencielsky, played by the largely unknown Mia Wasikowska.

Bell plays the levelheaded brother who keeps the hotheaded Craig and Schreiber in line. Other than getting married, and preventing the two main characters from killing each other, he isn’t given much to do.

Don’t feel bad for Bell, though. At least he has more of a role than MacKay, whose character goes mute after seeing the atrocity of his parents’ murder by the Nazis. He has exactly one line in the entire film.

Granted, when your only previous acting experience peaked with playing one of the lost boys in “Peter Pan,” audiences shouldn’t expect too much. However, the actor does an admirable job of simultaneously looking horrified, miserable and cold.

While “Defiance” tries to do the Bielski history justice, any film about the Holocaust will undoubtedly be compared to the titans that came before it, particularly “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.”

While it touches on the same subjects as those films, “Defiance” fails to pack the same emotional punch of those movies. It introduces too many minor characters that somehow prove to be important, no matter how small their roles.

The film also clocks in at an unnecessary 137 minutes. The humor is awkward, and the relationships aren’t developed enough to be maintained throughout the running time.

Had the director, Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond”), cut out half of the characters and an extraneous 30 minutes, “Defiance” would have been far more watchable.