Monday, October 3, 2016

Denial (**)

Directed by Mick Jackson


Director Mick Jackson has produced a lot of work for television, and that makes a lot of sense when you watch a film like Denial. I don't mean to denigrate television - lord knows we are not in need of further shots fired in the never-ending TV v. cinema debate - but Jackson's direction of a complex story like Denial feels too tidy, too averse to nuance and internalization. The film is based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory College professor who specializes in fighting against Holocaust deniers. Following a public confrontation with incendiary historian and known Holocaust denier David Irving, Lipstadt was then sued by Irving and faced with the frighteningly scary prospect of losing a public trial to a man who uses the facts of history as pawns in his own ludicrous retellings. The film's screenplay is written by the famed English playwright David Hare, and he is obviously capable of crafting strong sequences, supplied with ample opportunities for the right actors to succeed. Denial has the right actors, I believe, and the film has good performances from end to end. I'm just not sure this is the right director.

To play Lipstadt, the film got Rachel Weisz, who's in the middle of one of the best years of her career (with two stunning performances in The Lobster and The Light Between Oceans from earlier in 2016). Deborah is an American academic with a brutish kind of intellect; she's the kind of person who tells her English barrister "I don't mind Dickensian, it's Kafkaesque I'm afraid of". Lipstadt's refusal to converse with Holocaust deniers has drawn her some criticism, most notably from the provocative Irving (played here by a gaunt Timothy Spall). After their public shouting much, Deborah doesn't think much about the man's antics, but is surprised to find years later that Irving is suing her for libel over her comments about him in her latest book. Irving has filed this suit in the UK which gives him a specific advantage: the old American adage of "innocent until proven guilty" is flipped across the pond. It will be up to Deborah and her lawyers to prove that she didn't defame Irving in her book. For the job, Deborah hires notorious English solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and the jovial but committed barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). As Richard and Anthony put together a legal team of nearly a dozen people, David Irving decides to represent himself, crafting the perfect David and Goliath scenario for himself with the media.

A good chunk of the plot for Denial deals with Deborah's lack of familiarity with the British legal process, and her issues of trust with the way Anthony and Richard choose to tackle the case. Deborah is passionate about her cause, evidenced by taking the case to court instead of the usual settlement that goes with these sorts of things. She not only wants to win, she wants to completely disprove everything that David Irving stands for. But Anthony and Richard were not hired for passion and often their big picture pragmatism rubs in the face of what Deborah wants to accomplish. The two lawyers refuse to allow Holocaust survivors to testify on their own behalf, and more so, they don't even believe Deborah should testify either. Deborah is aghast at the very suggestion, appalled at even the suggestion that those effected by the very tragedy Irving denies should be silenced. Anthony and Richard know that the exact thing David Irving wants is a chance debate the existence of the Holocaust with a survivor or Deborah herself. The two men cannot afford to be sentimental about the issue at hand, and they know Irving's popular performance pieces are infamous for his ability to bait those who disagree with him into verbal sparring matches, a procedure that Irving is very comfortable with.

I'm not so sure that Denial couldn't work better as a limited series for television. There's so much that is going on in this story, and Jackson and Hare's attempt to wrangle it down into a two hour movie feels a bit insubstantial. The film jumps days, sometimes months, sometimes even years, without blinking an eye, to the point where I can began to wonder what all was happening in those missing gaps of time. In the film's attempt to be a tight illustration of Lipstadt's fight against nasty racial nationalism, the movie sometimes gets confused as to what it wants to be. At its current state, it is tugged between the kind of severe anti-Nazi melodrama that Hollywood loves to produce, and a clinical, detail-oriented law procedural. The film works better when it's going for the latter. Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson both possess a unique screen presence, and their contrasting style of acting works here as they both grow as personal threats for Deborah and her crusade to silence David Irving once and for all. There's something very American about making an entire film about how weird it is for an American to face litigation in the UK, and Hare finds a way to make these aspects the most interesting part of the film.

Outside of that, Denial is flimsy in terms of stakes (does anybody watching this film really feel that David Irving has a chance at making it to the end of this film as the winner?) and is little more than a collection of fine acting performances from a strong veteran cast. Rachel Weisz's Lipstadt is headstrong and verbose, and seems to be fighting against Anthony and Richard simply because the screenplay desperately needs the tension to exist. Her performance is good, but the role gives her very little to internalize, which is really her strength. Everything with Deborah is paged to the audience through her dialogue, and Weisz handles that burden as best she can. Spall's David Irving suffers the same issue: there simply isn't enough time in this film for the character to have subtle shades of humanity. It's easier for Spall to show up and spout horrific simplifications about historic monstrosities. Because Spall is such a splendidly talented actor, he's still able to goose the one-note character with a bit of pathetic self-aggrandizement. He knows how to show vulnerability where there is none. Denial definitely means well, but there's simply not enough conflict here. One could have fun drawing comparisons of the atrocious David Irving to another, more current demagogue spouting racist rhetoric, but I, for one, go to the movies to escape the Trump media machine.