The latest effort from director Ed Zwick ("Glory") is another in the line of the director's films that approach the subject matter with respect and a dry, straightforward approach. The picture takes place in 1941 in Belarus, as Hitler's forces continue to make their brutal push. Early in the picture, the four Bielksi brothers - Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Aron (George MacKay) - find that their family has been killed by the Nazis.
Progressing into the forest, the four brothers are sooned joined by a series of fellow refugees who have also sought safety away from the oncoming Nazi forces. The brothers (and the film is based on their true story) squabble over the situation, but as more and more people begin to rely on them, they find that they must stand together. As the amount of fellow survivors increases, the group starts to create a small community in the forest and begins to train fighters for the likelyhood of a battle with the Germans. However, other problems begin to arise as the group becomes bigger and the seasons change.
"Defiance" does tell a powerful, real-life tale, but some of the elements of the story do feel a tad formulaic and the movie progresses almost entirely as one might expect it to. A few romantic subplots, while not a major aspect of the movie (the female characters who the brothers find themselves attracted to are not well-defined), weren't necessary. Trimming the film down a bit (including this element) would have made for a mildly tighter film with a bit more momentum and tension.
Still, despite some mild concerns, Zwick's skill with choreographing action sequences is superb, and the performances (although Craig is a little iffy) are above-average. Zwick also gets excellent contributions from ace cinematographer Edwardo Serra and composer James Newton Howard. There are some Big Emotional Speeches throughout the movie, but Zwick is one of the most skilled directors at making a Big Emotional Speech not feel as such, and he's generally successful again here at making these moments legitimately moving.
Overall, "Defiance" can't be faulted on a technical level, as this is a superbly crafted, visually impressive production with Zwick at the helm. However, despite mostly fine performances, aspects of the screenplay remains a bit of an episodic look at the events of the characters, not getting quite far enough below the surface. This is still a compelling, watchable drama, but never quite reaches the full potential that the remarkable story would suggest.
VIDEO: "Defiance" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen by Paramount Home Entertainment. This is a stellar presentation of the film, doing justice to Edwardo Serra's striking cinematography. Sharpness and detail are terrific, as rarely did scenes not appear impressively detailed and crisp. Many scenes also showed nice depth to the image, as well.
The presentation did show some mild-to-moderate grain throughout the film, but this was handled well by the presentation. The presentation remained free of edge enhancement, pixelation or print flaws. The film's color palette mostly appeared a bit on the subdued side (understandably so, of course) and appeared spot-on.
SOUND: While the film would suggest a mostly dialogue-driven presentation, the Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is certainly a few steps more aggressive. The action sequences use the surrounds reasonably well for gunfire and other effects, but some of the quiet scenes in the outdoors also use the rear speakers quite nicely to deliver ambience and reinforcement of the score. Audio quality was fine, with clear, well-recorded dialogue and effects. James Newton Howard's score also sounded full and rich, as well. Although not a slam-bang sound mix, the audio presentation for "Defiance" did a very fine job with the material.
EXTRAS: Director Ed Zwick offers an excellent audio commentary for the picture, providing a detailed discussion of filming in Latvia, working with the actors, some of the challenges that were encountered during filming and much more. Zwick provides a lot of insight, doing an excellent job getting into details without stopping for too much praise or to narrate.
"Return to the Forest" is a nearly 30-minute documentary that follows the production to Latvia, where filming took place. Although a good portion of the documentary goes over the story, a large portion does a nice job discussing the actual history of the story of the four brothers, as well as a good deal of insights on working with the actors, filming on location and more. Admittedly a good deal of this is covered on the commentary, but for those who want to hear further interviews and see some good behind-the-scenes footage, the documentary is worthwhile.
"Bielski Partisan Survivors" is a short piece that shows some photos of modern day survivors. "Scoring Defiance" is a featurette that runs a few minutes and discusses the film's score with composer James Newton Howard. Finally, we get "Children of the Otriad", which provides a further look into the background/history of the film. Finally, we also get trailers for "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen".
Final Thoughts: "Defiance" is still a compelling, watchable drama, but never quite reaches the full potential that the remarkable story would suggest. The DVD presentation offers very good audio/video quality, along with some excellent extras. A recommended rental.
The Film B