Now playing at an indie art house near me:
DENIAL (Dir. Mick Jackson, 2016)
If you’ve forgotten about TRUTH, which was about the 2004 “Rathergate” scandal, and released this same week a year ago, that’s completely understandable because it was a unremarkable piece of pure Oscar bait; an issue movie with big stars that was engineered to win awards.
But it was bait that was rejected and won no awards - it didn’t get any major nominations – and it faded away.
DENIAL will maybe fair better as it’s about a much weightier subject – i.e. the holocaust – and it’s a much better film, but it resembles TRUTH in that it so self importantly depicts a true-life scenario involving a fight for justice headed by an idealistic woman who was born to make inspirational speeches.
In this case, a curly red-haired Rachel Weisz plays author/historian Deborah E. Lipstadt whose 2005 book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” serves as the film’s basis.
With curly red hair and a not terribly convincing Queens accent, Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt, who we meet teaching a class on the basics of holocaust denial: how deniers claim that the killings weren’t systematic, the numbers of deaths were exaggerated, that there weren’t gas chambers, etc.
During a Q & A at DeKalb Community College in Atlanta in 1994, Lipstadt is challenged by a man named David Irving, portrayed by Timothy Spall with a permanent scowl, who declares “I’ve got a thousand dollars in my pocket I’ll give to anyone who can prove Hitler ordered the killing of the Jews!”
A few years later, Irving sues Lipstadt, and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel claiming that Lipstadt’s 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust,” which labeled him as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial,” damages his livelihood and reputation as a serious historian.
Lipstadt travels to London for the trial and gets lawyered up with an ace legal team including British-Jewish lawyer Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Princess Diana in her divorce; and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson).
The fly fishing, wine loving Rampton insists that they take a trip to Auschwitz so that he can inspect it like a crime scene. Lipstadt is emotionally stirred by walking around the gray haunted grounds of the former concentration camp, while her team coldly concentrates on the forensics of the case.
It’s nearly halfway through the film before we get to the trial, in which the team’s strategy is for neither Lipstadt nor any Holocaust survivors to testify because Irving, who’s representing himself, will have a stage on which he can intimidate and mock them.
Irving’s case centers around the existence of gas chambers for the purpose of killing Jews at Auschwitz, and he argues that there is no evidence of the chimneys or ducts that the Nazi’s poured poison pellets into and his statement “No Holes, No Holocaust” becomes a newspaper headline and a famous Revisionist slogan.
This is compelling stuff story-wise, and David Hare’s (THE READER) screenplay is sharply written but Jackson’s unimaginative execution of the material makes for too many scenes that just serve to carry us from beat to beat instead of building any momentum or compelling suspense.
Despite the undeniable passion that Weisz brings to her part, some of her line readings are stilted and off, possibly due to her handling of Lipstadt’s accent. However, she fares well with warmth in a downtime moment at her apartment with Wilkinson (don’t worry there is no contrived romance here or elsewhere in the film).
Sadly, Spall’s Irving is just an evil caricature of a sad man with a flimsy case. There’s no scene or moment that’s reveals anything about the guy that we can’t guess from the get go.
The arching theme of fighting for truth against a movement founded in lies is especially relevant these days in light of our current political climate in which a certain candidate’s outrageous utterances are scrutinized and debunked daily, but DENIAL doesn’t really have much to say beyond its presentation of the basic facts of the trial’s circumstances.
While it’s a very watchable, and reasonably entertaining movie, DENIAL only exists to discredit a horrible point of view that has already been well discredited, and get some award season action in the process. But as we get further into fall, and it gets overshadowed by bigger and better projects, and largely forgotten, I predict that’ll it will join TRUTH on the shelf of earnest but overreaching historical melodrama Oscar bait fails.