Much of the limelight given to Daniel Craig has been focused on his second turn as enigmatic spy James Bond. Yet, it may be Craig’s performance as WWII Jewish refuge and resistance fighter Tuvia Bielski that allows Hollywood to strap the rocket to his back and blast him into space reserved for the priceless and the award-winning.
If only Liev Schreiber allows it.
Defiance is the story of the Bielski brothers — two men and two young adults forced to live on the run from the impending invasion of German forces into Poland and Russia. In the midst of hiding from the soldiers and turncoats, who destroyed their homes and killed their family and friends, the brothers — played by Craig, Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and George MacKay — begin to take in other Jewish refugees who have outran and outsmarted the enemy. Now, trapped in a forest, the brothers must not only feed and shelter themselves, but also the growing ranks of strangers who inhabit their makeshift community. When Zus (Schreiber) begins to find himself looking to battle the German forces, he abandons his brothers and his community to fight alongside Russian soldiers. Tuvia finds himself the de facto leader of men and women with little knowledge in the ways of wilderness survival. As Zus learns the ways of war, Tuvia fights the threats of starvation, winter weather, and German bombardment for his ever-growing forest village.
The story, based on true events, could fall into the trap of being just another sad tale of World War II’s genocide wrapped inside bittersweet happiness, but Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber never let the paper-thin plot device break under Defiance’s weighty subject. Tuvia’s constant self-doubt and Zus’ stubbornness give mythical characters authenticity. Craig’s Tuvia is conflicted — how can he keep hundreds of his fellow Jews hidden in the forest while keeping their bellies full and their wits sharp? Schreiber’s Zus must reconcile his anger at his brother’s humanitarianism, choosing to do so by becoming one with gun and knife. While much of Defiance follows the fate of Tuvia’s growing horde, it’s the moments focused on Zus that give the film a much-needed edge; the ups and downs of survival may provide heart to a film full of sad moments, but we are given prideful moments with Zus.
However, Defiance doesn’t rely solely on director Edward Zwick’s cache and the performance of Craig and Schreiber to carry the film. Jaime Bell, who plays Asael Bielski, matures along with his character. Paired with Mia Wasikowska’s Chaya, their tale of childhood romance blossoming into adult love keeps Defiance away from being just another WWII sob story. Bella, played by Iben Hjejle (you might recall her as Laura from High Fidelity) is a man’s woman, someone ready to shoot, scavenge, and use her two bare hands to survive. Yet her brief moments with Schreiber’s Zus give her a weakness and warmth that resists on-screen WWII stereotypes, a roaring Helen Reddy with no purpose.
Defiance isn’t built around the plot but around the people involved. To that end, Zwick has created a gem in a genre overflowing with diamonds. Without the complexities each actor brings to their role — whether it be the stars or secondary characters — there would be nothing to connect with, as Defiance transforms from the hopefulness of avoiding war into the hopelessness of surviving the inevitable. Everyone in Defiance suffers a test of faith, turning screen projections into human beings any moviegoer can identify with outside of the plot’s confines.