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Originally published January 15, 2009 at 4:00 PM | Page modified January 16, 2009 at 5:29 PM

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Movie review

Jewish refugees show grit in acts of "Defiance"

Edward Zwick's movie "Defiance," starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell, tells a little-known story of courage and persistence in the face of the Holocaust. Review by Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

"Defiance," with Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Jodhi May. Directed by Edward Zwick, from a screenplay by Clayton Frohman and Zwick, based on the book "Defiance: The Bielski Partisans" by Nechama Tec. 137 minutes. Rated R for violence and language. Several theaters.

Edward Zwick's "Defiance" achieves something increasingly rare among World War II movies: It tells us a story that most of us, in all likelihood, didn't know.

In 1941, three Jewish brothers fled Nazi attack by retreating to the woods near their farm in what's now Belarus. In the forest, they met other refugees and vowed to create a community of safe haven. Armed and ready to defend their settlement to the death, the brothers made frequent, dangerous forays into the nearby ghettos to rescue fellow Jews. Their community in the woods, built on the principle of all residents doing their share, grew to more than 1,000 members. People met and married, babies were born, the cycle of life went on.

Though not without a bit of Hollywood gloss (Alexa Davalos, as the camp love interest of one of the brothers, looks impossibly glamorous for a refugee living in the woods), Zwick's movie respectfully and movingly tells the Bielski brothers' story.

Daniel Craig, displaying the iciness that makes him so effective as Bond, is oldest brother Tuvia, a man conflicted about being a leader. Liev Schreiber is middle brother Zus, a firebrand motivated by vengeance and frequently angered by Tuvia's decisions. Jamie Bell ("Billy Elliot") plays the youngest, Asael. In the course of the movie, Asael grows from a teenager to a man in that heartbreaking way Bell has of seeming utterly without artifice, opening to the camera as if it could see his heart.

Cinematographer Eduardo Serra ("Girl with a Pearl Earring," "The Wings of the Dove") beautifully captures the shifting, crisp colors of the forest seasons, and the occasional bright invasion of something not from nature: In one scene, yellow-star badges are seen abandoned in a limp pile in the mud.

But Zwick's film is tough-minded where it needs to be; there are moments of startling violence, particularly in one murder of a German soldier. And the Bielski brothers don't always behave admirably, or even in a brotherly way; they are strong personalities who sometimes clash like stones thrown together.

Over the course of the several years covered in "Defiance," you see the characters fading (food was scarce, and the cold bitter), but the strength of the community doesn't waver. A wedding takes place, with a chuppah erected under the fluttering snowflakes; a man wanders about discussing Descartes, as if it were his most pressing concern.

Ultimately, the film celebrates and memorializes the survival of something unthinkable, and a group of people for whom defiance meant, at heart, that they would push against the growing darkness and carry on. "Our revenge," Tuvia says quietly, "is to live."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725


Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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