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Friday, October 14, 2016

Movie Review: #Denial

A monotonously ordinary film about an extraordinary subject.

Review by Matt Cummings

Let's be honest: the polar ice caps are melting, Elvis is dead, and The Holocaust sadly did happen. But even such an event that saw millions of Jews led to their deaths was actually denied by some in the decades afterwards, and was even the subject of a lawsuit in England. And while that subject should result in serious courtroom drama and important social commentary, Denial is ceetainly not that. It squanders an excellent cast and a high-interest topic in one of the most ordinary and boring films of the year.

The NY native and Holocaust professor Deborah Lipstadt’s (Rachel Weisz) becomes the target of a frivolous lawsuit by the crackpot and 'historian' David Irving (Timothy Spall), claiming that Hitler never ordered the gassing of Jews at Auschwitz. His hope is that if he can win this claim in court, the entire argument of Jews being gassed instead of dying in camps from hard labor will die as well. Forced to hear the case in England - where the burden of proof is placed on the defendant instead of on the accuser - Lipstadt takes on a fierce legal team including the solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and the barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). But when she and Holocaust survivors are kept off the witness stand, Lipstadt must place her trust in a legal system she knows nothing about, placing her book and the entire history of The Holocaust in a potentially precarious position.

For a film that should contain incredibly high stakes - and therefore intense personal drama - Denial feels perceptibly lukewarm and is honestly quite boring. Nothing here feels particularly inspired or emotionally gut-wrenching, because so many of the performances never rise any higher than a merely bubble on the surface. Take Spall’s Irving: he comes across more like a Donald Trump figure, a disturbed moron convinced that his corner of the world contains the truth and that everyone else is ugly and unintelligent. We can't take him seriously, because under that refined British ego is an obvious misogynist crackpot. That makes Lipstadt's team look like intellectual giants whose victory is self-assured. And without any effort, they seem to easily cruise to victory.

But even with that admission, there is a story that Denial could tell effectively but ultimately doesn't: the human emotion of The Holocaust and the toll on its survivors. And yet, Director Mick Jackson stays far away from that urge, which never gives his film the emotional anchor it needs. Instead, it drifts from scene to scene, becoming almost clinical in the way Rampton attacks Irving's claims. But beyond that, we know very little about these characters, except they've been thrust together in an effort to prove one of the worst calamities of mankind. There is one interesting moment late in the trial, but it soon passes as we both wait for the decision and check our watches for when this snoozer will end.

There are a couple of stirring - but way too quick - scenes during a visit to Auschwitz, when Lipstadt tours the death camp. But the effect is lost as the legal team moves about collecting evidence to use against Irving. Screenwriter David Hare delivers an efficient but ultimately dull collection of facts, draining any emotion out his screenplay. Taken with Jackson's direction, our actors are forced into tiny boxes from which they never emerge. All we know about Weisz is that she loves her dog and jogs frequently, but we never get beneath that exterior. The same goes for Wilkinson, who's painted only in terms of what he can do for Lipstadt. Any personal story he has was either edited out or never existed in the first place. I'm sure Hare could have taken more interesting angles here, letting the courtroom serve in shorter pieces to all the characters their own moments in the sun. Nope, not here.

By the time Denial's credits roll, we've become aware of the old adage "Be careful what you wish for." We've desired an effective true story for quite some time; and while recent historical dramas have entertained, they've also taken liberties with the stories. Denial proves that any 'Based on a true story' also requires some emotion to get the engine going. This was a trial on free speech - as Hare recently wrote about in The UK Guardian - as much as it was about the historical accuracy of The Holocaust; but Jackson never delivers the emotion gut punch to make us give a damn. This is an ordianry film about an extraordinary subject, and that's too bad because the results could have been Oscar worthy.

Denial is rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language and has a runtime of 110 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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