The most successful thing about “Defiance” is its sense of Being There: the forests of Eastern Europe during World War II. For years, these forests were the home of hundreds of Jewish resistors hiding from the Nazis.
The story hasn’t been widely known until the last few years, but “Defiance” is designed to present the saga of the Bielski partisans in as clear a way as possible. In that sense, Edward Zwick’s film carries the weight of official history about it, like a TV-movie with a mission.
We join the story in 1941, as three Bielski brothers escape the ghetto and begin living in the forest, attracting other Jewish refugees. Carving out homes from caves and timber, they created a floating society that eventually included more than 1,000 people.
The film sets up the oppositional personalities of the three brothers. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) is the leader, and the Bielski with the firmest grip on moral imperatives. Zus (Liev Schreiber) is the fiery brother, the one willing to do almost anything to ensure the survival of the group.
The film raises most of its issues in the debates between these two. The third wheel is Asael (Jamie Bell), who’s younger and prone to peacekeeping.
These three actors are all fiercely devoted to their parts, and there isn’t a weak link in the triangle. Schreiber gets more humor than you’d think into his role, and Craig (the reigning James Bond) is fine as an offbeat hero — Tuvia is all too susceptible to human frailty.
The cast also includes Alexa Davalos (“The Mist”) and Iben Hjejle, but most of the other actors are overwhelmed by the setting.
Zwick hasn’t found the dramatic key that would energize the story, but there’s something uncanny in the setting. Shooting in the woods of Lithuania, Zwick and his crew capture the oppressiveness of the forest sanctuary, as month drags on after month.
It’s odd that “Defiance” opens here the same day as “Che,” which also presents a physical endurance test involving partisans hiding in the landscape. “Defiance” takes a more traditional approach, but both movies give sometimes wearying evidence of the physical toll of waiting for battle.