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Defiance‘s story has much in common with Che‘s—war, idealism, underdogs who become revolutionaries. The film’s details, taken from a nonfiction book about Holocaust survivors but surely rearranged for the screen, are intrinsically cinematic: Brethren will stand united, then divide, then reunite. The pretty people will couple. Impossible situations will turn out just fine. And when the leader of a group of refugees, sermonizing—seriously—atop a white horse, says, “Pregnancies are forbidden,” you can bet a bucket of popcorn that someone will get knocked up.
So even if you’ve never heard the true story of the Bielski brothers before, you certainly feel as if you have by the time writer-director Edward Zwick wraps up Defiance‘s increasingly dull 137 minutes. Zwick and Clayton Frohman co-adapted Nechama Tec’s account of the Bielski Partisans, a community of Jews who survived World War II by living in the Belorussian forest for two years. The group, whose numbers swelled to 1200, is established in 1941 by brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), and Asael (Jamie Bell) after they discover that their parents and other family members have been killed. A handful at a time, other Jews beg to hide out with them; they are welcomed by Tuvia but not Zus, who points out that the siblings barely have rations and ammunition to keep themselves alive.
In between battling SS guards, the growing community learns how to build shelters, hunt for food, and maintain order between frantic strangers. As the population increases, so does the tension between Zus and Tuvia: Zus wants to be proactive in seeking revenge. Tuvia, though he hunts their parents’ murderer himself—in a wrenching scene that recalls The Reader in terms of trying to humanize unwilling executioners—insists on taking a higher moral ground, stealing only from those who can spare it and killing only when their own lives are at stake. Eventually, Zus joins the violent Russian resistance, while Tuvia becomes the nurturing leader, shepherding his flock through a harsh winter.
The backbone of Defiance is inarguably good drama, and Craig and Schreiber are credible in both accents and hardheadedness. (Bell is less of a presence, though considering his past characters have predominantly been grating, that’s not a bad thing.) But the compelling aspects of the story quickly become buried under sentimentality and sameness: Just like Che: Part Two, Defiance turns into a yawn-inducing series of gunfights, none particularly spectacular. And even more pervasive is its atmosphere of static mournfulness. (In one scene, as people sit around looking heavyhearted, someone actually plays a violin.) For a film that takes place nearly exclusively outdoors, there’s no air; we’re deadened by monotony instead of feeling the refugees’ plight. The few closing-credit title cards that give historical details about the Bielskis’ fate, in fact, are more engaging than most of what came before. Now that’s sad.