Defiance (UK - BD RB)
Marcus follows Daniel Craig into the woods for this War Drama on Blu-ray
Telling the true story of the Bielski Partisans, a group of Polish Jews on the run from Nazi persecution during the Second World War, Defiance provides insight into a small community that survived the atrocities of the period by living in the woods. Led by Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), along with help from his three brothers, the ever growing group struggle to live a life of freedom despite the constant threat of starvation, illness and worst of all, capture from the Nazis.
I wouldn’t say I was an avid fan of Edward Zwick’s work as a director, yet looking at his filmography, it has to be said I’ve seen and own the vast majority of it. Movies like Glory and Legends of the Fall are ones I’ve watched quite a bit of the years without ever going out of my way to do so and generally Zwick is a director who has a solid talent for filmmaking and seems to enjoy telling his stories in a thoughtful and straightforward way even if this isn’t always totally satisfying.
Defiance shares themes with many of the other films in Zwick's back catalogue. Once again he takes quite a bleak tale and somehow softens it just enough in the drama department to reach a wider market without being disrespectful of the original story. The story is simply told, with a clear set of perimeters and everyone involved do a solid job at generating what is a very classic Hollywood take on the holocaust.
Taking quite an easy route of depicting the majority of this large cast as mostly stereotypes (the intellectuals, the angry, the mean etc.), the story skims across the surface of the larger picture to zoom in on the journey of Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his to a slightly lesser degree his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber). Craig takes the central role with a quiet inward performance, depicting Bielski as a man who haphazardly begins a community in the woods and has to deal with the struggles of leadership in a climate of anger and sadness. He comes packed with his rousing speeches (even a couple on horseback) and his moments of defeat, and of course his ‘we will not give up’ backbone. Schreiber goes with the more aggressive role of joining a resistant Russian group, and while it’s a lesser role than Craig, he still manages to provide a solid performance that is more believable and rounded than the lead.
Outside of the two main brothers, there are few that provide much outside of what the stereotypical roles provide. Jamie Bell pretty much plays his character from King Kong with a bit more depth, Alexa Davalos couldn’t be more cliché as the love interest if she tried, and as I mentioned before the rest of this Jewish community seem only to represent a characteristic as opposed to being actual characters and this is really Defiance's biggest failing.
Despite dealing with a situation that must have been mostly abysmal, the tone of the story is just too one-note and easy going (as much as it can be anyway). There are moments where we are shown these people freezing and starving in the worst of winter conditions, yet there’s no real sense of how bleak the situation is beyond the visuals of characters wrapped up in blankets with their red noses. There’s also very little weight in just how cold it must have been, with characters hanging out in their homes (essentially wood huts with no windows or doors) acting quite comfortably within their four tree stump walls. Yes, there’s still turmoil (the worst being the brutal group attack of a German officer) and drama, but it all feels a little too episodic in its depiction and considering how long these people spent in the wilderness, there is almost no visual change between when they first go there and the end of the movie.
Defiance is an okay movie, with some okay moments and as with many of Zwick's movies, they are not a struggle to watch at all, even when at their worst. He has a keen sense of keeping his audience on board with an almost sixties Hollywood approach to his storytelling and while I’m not complaining about this in general, I couldn’t help but feel this story may have needed a little more depth and believability to truly honour what the real Bielski Partisans must have struggled through.
Once in a while a transfer pops up out of the blue (or is that Blu?) and takes you completely by surprise. This is one of those transfers.
Opening with some old grainy WWII footage mixed with some new visuals to look like WWII footage, I was immediately surprised how good what was essentially a bad image looked. Then, once the full colour HD kicked in, it was astonishing.
First off, the video is noticeably clean in ways only HD can manage. The level of filmic grain is subtle and makes the transfer look even better. Detail is incredibly high quality, from skin textures all the way through to the forest backdrop. Colours are vivid and frankly striking; every variation of green seems to be on show in the surrounding trees. The lighting really sells the clarity of the image, examples ranging from piles of dirt to Daniel Craig’s blonde eyebrows, all show off the sometimes taken for granted chasm that lies between standard definition and spectacular HD quality. Honestly, there are some moments very early on when establishing the journey to the forest that almost feel 3D in terms of their depth and quality.
I should mention that sometimes the transfer gets a little murky in the darker scenes and that some of the snowier scenes can get a little heavy on grain, but these things are so minor in the overall quality of this transfer. On a more artistic note, you could argue that this style doesn’t really go with the period the story is set in or indeed with the mood but that’s not going to take away from what’s on offer here.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track for Defiance doesn’t really go through its paces consistently but it does have its moments of excitement.
The score is the first thing to shine. Although generally quite subtle and incidental, when it needs to, it builds and uses everything it has at its disposal. Its multiple layers are spread wonderfully throughout all five speakers. The bass has a nice presence without being over-powering and when it reaches its peaks, it just sounds great.
Gunshots and shoot-outs are also captured well and sound surprisingly realistic and powerful, as does the always great thunderstorms in a 5.1 set up.
Beyond that, dialogue is solid and atmospherics work when they are used for effect but overall this is quite a quiet movie in many areas, so by design alone there’s quite a bit of space between big audio moments.
Edward Zwick provides one of the most informative and personal commentaries that I’ve heard in a while. At first it feels like a book or diary reading and his voice is just one that’s really easy to listen to when discussing the history of both the actual events and the art of filmmaking. He remains comfortable and consistent throughout the entire commentary and shows that sometimes a solo commentary can really work.
‘Children of the Otriad’ (13:42 SD) features the personal stories from the children and grandchildren of the survivors and how important this time of their lives was. This is complimented with ‘Bielski Partison Survivors’ (01:59 SD) which is a collection of black and white photos taken by Zwick.
'Defiance: Return to the Forest' (26:05 SD) is a respectful making of and a bit of a history lesson. Once again Zwick provide some insightful and thoughtful comments and the cast and crew have their say as well.
Lastly there’s ‘Scoring Defiance’ (07:00 SD), which takes a look at James Newton Howard's recording at Abbey Road Studios as well as the trailer.
Other trailers featured on the disc are Milk, Traitor, Outlander and Galaxy Minstrels (because nothing goes with a WWII movie like a packet of Minstrels...right?)
Defiance is a solid WWII movie with that old Hollywood feel. It’s a little one-note in its approach but never enough to lose interest in and while I wouldn’t tell anyone to rush out to watch it, I certainly wouldn’t say to avoid it either.
Blu-ray wise, it’s jaw dropping reference material type stuff on the video front and the audio does its thing quite nicely too. As for the features, there's enough here to be considered decent, so anyone who is already looking to pick this up should be more than happy.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Marcus Doidge
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 18th May 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD MasterAudio 5.1 English, Audio Desciption 5.1 English
Extras: Commentary, Featurettes, Trailer, Bielski Partison Survivors Photographs
Easter Egg: No
Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell
Genre: Drama and War
Length: 136 minutes
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