Although most Holocaust-themed works present the Jews as victims this true story shows there were small bands who did manage to fight back no matter how difficult the challenge. Starting near the beginning of World War II the film focuses on three Jewish brothers who lead a small but effective resistance against the surging Nazi presence in the forests of Belarussia. Eldest brother Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) returns home to find most of his family murdered. His only surviving siblings are his wild quick-tempered brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) prone to shoot first and ask questions later and his youngest brother Asael (Jamie Bell) whose gentle nature allows to him to act as a buffer between his two older siblings. Crux of the film is the conflict between Zus’ quest for revenge at any cost and Tuvia’s more measured desire to save lives. As they round up more and more Jewish outcasts the Bielskis form a community deep in the woods. But soon Tuvia must rise to the occasion and lead the 1 200 strong group deeper into hiding in order to survive the winter and the lurking Nazi threat. Daniel Craig gets back to his acting roots after two high-profile outings as 007. He’s strong resilient and complex as a man with a criminal past whose mettle is tested when he chooses to become an advocate for life over the prospect of turning into a killing machine. Schreiber is superb as well as the toughest of the brothers -- at least on the outside. His primal urge to survive at all costs by using whatever preemptive force is necessary is apparent throughout his well-detailed portrayal. And finally Bell who more than holds his own as the most innocent of the bunch and the one with the most to learn. Alexa Davalos Iben Hjejle and Mia Wasikowska add needed warmth and emotion as the three very different women or “forest wives ” with whom the brothers romantically bond during their years in hiding. Stand out in the enormous meticulously chosen cast is Mark Feuerstein as an intellectual and Viktor Panchenko as Isyyanov the leader of the People’s Army. Edward Zwick is known for intelligent historically based films like Glory The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. Defiance follows suit shot on a rather large scale with lots of impressive action sequences buffering an intimate story. Zwick’s co-writer Clayton Frohman stumbled upon the Bielskis’ story while reading a newspaper obituary on one of them. Armed with exhaustive research and an unerring eye for authenticity the director does not present any of these characters as saints. They were flawed conflicted human beings caught up in a extraordinary situation which only highlights their indomitable determination and fortitude to walk out of that forest alive. James Newton Howard’s brilliant score with haunting violin solos from Joshua Bell deserve special mention among the talented artists who made Defiance come to life. This is a must-see movie and another towering cinematic achievement for Zwick his best since Glory.
Gillian Anderson is Lily Bart a woman of shaky means for who parties are business and the pursuit of marriage has become a constant vocation. She falls in love with Lawrence Seldon (Eric Stoltz) but quickly realizes she can't seriously consider him since he actually works for a living. Still her efforts to marry for money instead of love are so half-hearted that she sabotages her chances with a wealthy prig and continues her flirting gambling cigarette-smoking ways. This in turn puts her out of favor with her rich aunt and a tragic demise waits in the wings. Bribery extortion and character assassination rear their scandalous heads as the wrong men make improper plays for the desirable Lily. Intriguing as it may sound revealing letters that have been tossed into a fire are all that smolders in this film.
Leaving the realm of supernatural phenomenon ("X-Files") for the spookier world of Victorian society Gillian Anderson plays the ever so wronged but resolutely brave Lily. Anderson's self-righteousness and wretched desperation fail to endear her leaving her tragic long-suffering Lily somewhat remote. But it's Stoltz's opaque inert Lawrence who truly irritates. A once-likeable actor he has begun to play all his roles with a tad too much smugness. Sincere but utterly passive the character is annoyingly subdued. Laura Linney is refreshingly vital as the dangerous Bertha. Dan Aykroyd fails to impress as a villain in sheep's clothes and Eleanor Bron is a caricature of a stern sour aunt.
After seeing one too many Merchant Ivory films one might tire of the convention in which a woman of meager means falls for a poor working man while searching for a rich husband. And for those who haven't seen any you just might tire of it midway through Terence Davies' languid dour drama. Davies ("The Neon Bible " "Distant Voices Still Lives") doesn't do for Wharton what Martin Scorsese did in "Age of Innocence " namely bring her words to lively engaging life.