Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests, where they join Russian resistance fighters and endeavor to build a village in order to protect themselves and about 1,000 Jewish non-combatants.
The story of Defiance is a remarkable one, and the fact that it’s true only serves to make it even more amazing. Three Jewish brothers from Belarus hide out in the forest near their home town after the Nazis start murdering their family and friends. They gradually collect a rag-tag group of regular Jewish folk intent of survival, against all odds. When they find out that the Nazis are liquidating the ghettos they sneak their way in and help hundreds to escape, from right under the noses of their oppressors. So far, so uplifting.
It’s beautifully shot, well acted (apart from some pretty ropey accents), and the actors are almost distractingly beautiful, to the point where you think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad spending a freezing cold Belarusian winter in wooden huts, in the wilds of the north, hiding from murderous Nazis, so long as you could snuggle up between Daniel Craig and Jamie Bell, or any of the eastern European super models that make up the female contingent of the cast. But here is where the problems begin.
There are quickly resolved disagreements, there is a momentary illness and there are repeated allusions to “what is expected of a woman” within the village. These are never really elaborated on. The film seems so concerned with portraying the brothers Bielski as reluctant, flawed heroes, that it only very reluctantly reveals their flaws. It seems afraid that the true power of their actions, eventually saving over 1500 Jews without seeking credit or recognition, might be overlooked or not believed if the brothers were not noble, honest, cookie-cutter movie heroes. You can see the actors struggle with some of the wooden dialogue, and you don’t really get drawn into the emotion of the story as much as you feel you should. The film is at times warm, funny, moving and sad, but it could have been so much more so if it had the courage to be ugly.