In the hilarious and underrated television show “Extras,” Kate Winslet says, “If you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar.” Unfortunately, “Defiance” never quite reaches the brilliance of films like “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist,” and thus its obvious quest for Academy Award glory will remain unfulfilled.
Though it is one of the first of its kind — a Holocaust action thriller — this incredible but true film lacks the pathos of its predecessors and does not do its subject matter justice. For one of the first times in cinematic history, palpable Jewish resistance against the Nazis is celebrated. In reality, the heroes of the film saved over 1,200 Jews, an incredible feat about which few people know.
That isn’t to say that “Defiance” is a bad film. It’s actually extremely compelling and features outstanding performances from many of its actors, but, for one reason or another, it never achieves greatness. Though they could not look more unrelated, Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell are uniformly excellent as Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski, three brothers who unintentionally create a thriving camp in a forest where Jews from all over Belarus come to seek sanctuary.
Craig and Schreiber’s magnetism make their scenes together standouts and their constant quarrels over the prioritization of maintaining civilization, basic survival and vengeance are the best features of the film. Mark Feuerstein and Iddo Goldberg are also commendable, though Alexa Davalos and Mia Wasikowska are glaringly miscast as two refugees. Their subplots, which involve the men taking “forest wives,” seem to belong to a different film altogether.
“Defiance” is certainly not director Ed Zwick’s best effort by any means. Though far from perfect, “Defiance” remains incredibly profound.