Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
That Defiance is not relentlessly grim viewing even as its subject is, you know, relentlessly grim is a credit to director Edward Zwick, whose track record on intense storytelling ranges from the starkly brutal (Special Bulletin, a TV movie about a nuclear terrorist attack) to the laughably off-key (The Last Samurai).
There isn't a lick of phony sentimentality in this tale of three roguish brothers who lead a group of Jews in hiding into Belorussia's forests as the Nazis round up people for the camps. The film based on Nechama Tec's nonfiction book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans rings so true, it even manages to make us feel as if we haven't seen much of this before.
So if it's a little bit Robin Hood-ish when one of the heroic Bielski brothers, Asael (Jamie Bell), says, "We know these woods. They'll never find us in here," well, that's just fine. What he and his brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber), are stealing from the powerful Nazis are people Jews and what they are giving the "poor" is themselves not only their own lives, but a sense of hope and a way to continue in a terrible situation.
The track their story takes is inevitable: Their refuge deep in the dense forests cannot be safe forever from such persistent pursuit, and we know that someone had to survive to tell the tale. But there are more than a few intense moments when it's hard to see how. The details which Zwick lavishes over in a way that is both loving, to ensure their richness, and sparse, to avoid bringing the plot to a standstill make the story sing.
Some details are familiar: Thematically, the movie ventures into how one copes with traitors and collaborators, how one struggles not to become like the monstrous enemy one is fighting, and how life goes on even amid deprivation, sickness and endless fear. Others are more surprising: Craig navigates Tuvia through a landmine of personality he's a petty criminal used to being treated like dirt but comes into his own as a natural leader, a hard man who cannot turn away anyone who needs help. There comes a moment when you wonder whether Tuvia hasn't gone as soft as a man like him can go, and then, oof! he smacks you across the face.
Some details are bittersweet: Two brainy types, a teacher and a publisher, cheerfully argue politics and philosophy even as they engage in what is probably the most physical work they've ever done. And then, many are just bitter: A rabbi in a Nazi ghetto rejects Tuvia's offer of escape, saying, "We're waiting for God." There's a moment when Schreiber's Zus, full of grief, does something that feels so spontaneous that I had to wonder whether he improvised it. (If he did, he's a far more dangerous actor than I've ever given him credit for.)
But Defiance doesn't leave you with bitterness. Instead, it's hopefulness, even as we can't forget that we haven't learned our lessons from this chapter of the past at all.