Release Date: June 2, 2009
Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davelos, Allan Corduner and Mark Federstein
Based on the book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec
Screenplay by Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Defiance really wants to be a gripping film about a true story of courage and perseverance in the face of certain death. It has a skilled director and two lead actors more than ready to pour themselves into the material, and it has the benefit of a strong attention to detail throughout. And yet, it never really grips the viewer. (Or at least, it didn’t grip this viewer.) The plot follows the actions of the Bielski brothers during World War II-era Poland, who brought a large group of Polish Jews to the forest and organized them to protect themselves from the Nazis. This is a mostly true story as seen in the film, and it’s certainly worthy material, but something doesn’t add up in the telling. Part of the problem is that the film simply doesn’t have enough material to justify its running time – too little happens over too long a time. Part of it is that in the attempt to make a kind of Schindler’s List where the oppressed actually fight back, it repeatedly falls back on fairly stiff exchanges between the leads that feel a bit stagey. And part of it is that the events shown in the film are not in fact what actually happened – the real Bielskis did not engage in large-scale battles as seen here and the admittedly flawed behaviour by the brothers deserves a deeper examination than simply showing them arguing or fighting with each other. The director, Ed Zwick, has stated that this is a story of flawed heroes, and yet the only actions he includes of theirs here are justified either by necessity or by the injustices he shows them suffering. It’s just too pat of a picture, and such a story simply deserves a deeper understanding.
Defiance has been released on both standard definition and Blu-ray as of this week. This review, of course, focuses on the standard definition release, which I believe contains everything on the Blu-ray but the high definition picture and sound, and a single featurette regarding the film’s score. The picture and sound here are quite good, in any case, and there are some extras provided for interested viewers.
VIDEO QUALITY: 3 ½/5 ½
Defiance is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that shows off a lot of detail in the grime on characters’ faces and the texture of the period wardrobe. There’s a fair amount of darkness in this film, and the black levels look solid. The transfer shows off a lot of variety in the forest environment, between a very green summer look to the snow-white winter.
AUDIO QUALITY: 3 ½/5 ½
Defiance is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English, French and Spanish. The surrounds and subwoofer get a more thorough workout than normal here, what with all the gunplay and fighting. (Beware the bombing sequence and the tank battle – lots of big subwoofer hits there). It can be a little difficult to understand the dialogue, given the heavy accents used throughout the film – but this isn’t an issue with the sound mix, which presents what is said as clearly as it can.
SPECIAL FEATURES: 3/5
Defiance comes with a some extra features, including a scene-specific commentary by director Edward Zwick, two featurettes and a photo gallery of the real survivors depicted in the film.
Feature Commentary with Edward Zwick - This is a scene-specific commentary by Zwick, although it feels a little dry, not unlike the scenes which gave me trouble between the leads throughout the film. He does relate a lot of information if you can stay with him, both about the reality of making the film and about the nuances and origins of the character relationships depicted in the film.
Defiance: Return to the Forest (26:04, Anamorphic) – This is a making-of featurette that includes the usual interviews with the cast and director, intercut with footage from the film and video from the set. Various departments are also included here, including Wardrobe and Props, with the usual looks at the period materials they either used or recreated. It’s clear from this that Edward Zwick is more passionate about this project than you might think from hearing the commentary.
Children of the Otriad (13:40, Anamorphic) – This featurette focuses on the living children of the Bielski Partisans, and their interviews are intercut with both footage from the film and home movies of the real Bielski brothers and the people they saved.
Bielski Partisan Survivors (1:58, Anamorphic) – This is a brief collection of photos taken by director Zwick of the real Partisan survivors on November 20, 2008. The gallery is presented in motion and is backgrounded with a piano cue from the film’s score. At the end of the photos, the names of the survivors are listed in a group.
Previews (5:37, Non-anamorphic) – This section contains a trio of non-anamorphic trailers for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and the DVD releases of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Revolutionary Road. They are presented in a single unbroken unit, and are seen automatically when you first put the DVD in the machine.
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for the film itself, as well as for the featurettes. A standard chapter menu is included for quick reference.
IN THE END...
Defiance is a well-intentioned film that simply doesn’t achieve what it sets out to accomplish. The DVD release of the film presents it in the best possible light, with a good video and audio transfer, and with a commentary and attendant special features to give the filmmakers the best chance to explain and elaborate on what we are seeing. But it still falls into the category of the near-miss. Fans of Edward Zwick will likely be interested in his latest film, while fans of Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber may wish to see how they do here. Viewers interested in examining World War II material, particularly as it relates to the Holocaust, may wish to rent this title, although I caution them to look up the real history of the Bielskis to balance it out.
June 5, 2009.