Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Movie Review: Denial

Directed by: Mick Jackson.   
Written by: David Hare based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt.
Starring: Rachel Weisz (Deborah Lipstadt), Tom Wilkinson (Richard Rampton), Timothy Spall (David Irving), Andrew Scott (Anthony Julius), Jack Lowden (James Libson), Caren Pistorius (Laura Tyler), Alex Jennings (Sir Charles Gray), Harriet Walter (Vera Reich), Mark Gatiss (Professor Robert Jan van der Pelt), John Sessions (Prof. Richard Evans).
The filmmakers behind Denial could not have guessed when they started working on the film – years ago – that they would end up with a timely film when it was released in the fall of 2016. Their film is about a man who tells lies, and then complains when people call him out on those lies, claim media bias against him, and threatens to sue if he doesn’t get his way – but who seems more motivated by self-promotion than because he actually believes the bile he’s spouting. No, the film isn’t about Donald Trump – but it has a character that may well remind you of him – in David Irving. Memorably played by Timothy Spall, Irving is a self-taught historian from England obsessed with the Third Reich. Irving wants acceptance more than anything, and when he doesn’t get it from academia, he finds it from various radical right wing and neo-Nazi groups, when he helps to publish the Leuchter Report, which claimed to disprove any Jews were gassed at Auschwitz (for a great movie on Fred Leuchter, see Errol Morris’ Mr. Death from 1999 all about him). From there, Irving became a Holocaust denier – and when American professor Deborah Lipstadt (played here by Rachel Weisz) wrote a book about Holocaust deniers, and named Irving, he ended up suing her and her publisher. He was smart about it as well – he sues her in England, where the burden of proof isn’t on him to prove that she defamed him, but on her to proven she didn’t. In essence, she is going to have to prove that the Holocaust happened – which is more difficult than it sounds – and that Irving knew it happened, and lied about it anyway.
For a courtroom drama, this case makes an interesting choice – as the strategy laid out by Lipstadt’s lawyers – Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) is deliberately less provocative than it could have been. They aren’t going to put any survivors on the stand – they don’t want to give Irving a chance to humiliate them, and they aren’t going to put Lipstadt on the stand either. Irving, who is defending himself, wants to put on a show – and the strategy against him is not to let him do that. The effect is almost deliberately anti-climactic – there is no shouting in the courtroom between the lawyers and Irving for example. Rampton’s biggest strategy is to refuse to even look Irving in the eye to communicate to him – and everyone else – his complete and utter disdain for him. Wilkinson masterfully plays these scenes – and Spall makes for an appropriate foil in these scenes. Weisz, as Lipstadt, often fades into the background – she feels she isn’t being listened to – but she’s smart enough to listen to them. Weisz is miscast as Lipstadt, but gamely tries anyway.
Denial is one of the few, non-documentary films that has been allowed to actually shoot as Auschwitz (for some reason, they didn’t let X-Men Apocalypse shoot there) – and the sequence there is appropriately grim and reverential – as it happens on a cold and grim.
The film was directed by Mick Jackson and written by David Hare. They seem to take their lead from Lipstadt’s defense team – they decided on a deliberately unflashy style that draws no attention to itself, and deliberately downplays the drama. To a certain extent, this is effective – it would seem odd for this movie to be flashier – but it doesn’t quite help make the film more exciting. In the end, Denial is as much about the bizarre intricacies of the British legal system as it about Holocaust denial. It is an average film – well acted, with a few memorable moments. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if it would be less memorable had we not had the ready-made Trump comparisons at hand given the release date.

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