Denial’s urgency is never matched by its filmmaking

Denial is the kind of story that’s fortunate enough to have a moment right now, much to the misfortune of the rest of us. An important tale at any point, it becomes especially timely in the light of our own personal little charismatic denier of the facts currently running for President. 

Up front, let me disclose much of my fascination with this film came not from its story but from my own third degree connection to it. It’s a film based at (and filmed at) my alma mater, Emory University, about a professor who taught in my Minor department, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). I’ve never met Lipstadt and have only read her book Denying the Holocaust, so I’m going into this one with a pretty blank slate regarding its subject, besides the facts I’m aware of about the David Irving (Timothy Spall) case.

For those of you who aren’t, the facts are fortunately also the plot summary. Lipstadt is a professor who’s just published her book Denying the Holocaust, in which there is a passage or two in which she’s ripped into Irving, a historian who’d spent much of his professional life attempting to rehabilitate the Third Reich historically, chiefly through work on the Bombing of Dresden and uncoupling Hitler from the Holocaust, which he downplays. Irving sues Lipstadt for libel based on her book, after confronting her at a speech, and tries the case in British courts.

That’s important. British libel laws put the burden on the defendant to prove that what they said about the plantiff was true, a reverse of our own system. Lipstadt and her legal team, including solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), who is the one arguing against the self-representing Irving in court, must ultimately prove that Irving did lie and misrepresent his facts to uphold his anti-semitic beliefs.

Let’s get another thing completely out of the way. By circumstances of history or by deliberate action, Denial is a movie about Donald J. Trump. He’s not namechecked, no, even if Timothy Spall’s Irving couldn’t help but remind me of his with his squinty poutiness and media savvy. But it’s a movie about people who distort facts to push hate, and the measures that must be taken against them.

Which the movie believes to be sitting down and working through the system to fight hate with logic and calm reason. It’s in other words, a very British movie about a very American subject. As someone who could be described as pragmatic politically, I have to express a fondness for that approach. Dealing with the system by barrelling forth knowing that you’re right and that logic will prevail warms my heart and I think is a thematic concern that extends to the construction of the film on a whole.

This is a procedural through and through, using the intricacies of the British court system to exoticize what is otherwise essentially running us through a fairly dead-on trial. I’m saying all this from an American perspective of course, the British may view it differently. But it’s founded all of its drama on the specific differences inherent to the way British handle libel suits, and the places that puts our heroes in.

Our heroes being the legal team here. Writer David Hare makes the choice to put the legal team as our protagonists and use Lipstadt as an audience surrogate, someone forced into the role of passivity for what the film asserts is her own good. It’s always odd to critique things that may be a part of history, but there’s a strangeness to the way the film handles Lipstadt. For much of Denial, I wasn’t entirely sure the film admired her. The movie respects her tenacity, but seemed to constantly position her as her own worst enemy against the greater good. Again, Lipstadt’s emotional nature seems to be sharply put into relief against the methodical way that Julius and Rampton handle her case, and her winning is choosing to sit down and shut up.

Which, fine, but I can’t help but think there was a more graceful way to make a movie about a woman learning the best thing for her to do is to sit down and be quiet and let the men talk. I understand the thematic work being done, but it’s one of a few story decisions that seem to give pause, as if Denial is a film that needs another pass on the script.

Now fortunately for that unfortunate optic, Rachel Weisz is more than up to the task of giving Lipstadt the resemblance of agency. She plays her with a fierceness and a consummate sense of righteousness. It’s an admirable performance that I wish had been in service of a clearer vision for the character, or even a vision that was taking more active charge.

It’s similar with Timothy Spall’s Irving. Spall is a phenomenal presence, the sort of professional British character actor I could watch do his thing any day at any time. His Irving gets plenty of moments to be despicable in a human way. I have a sneaking suspicion his petulant pout may have been most of the reason that he was hired for the role, he plays Irving as a child that feels he was never sufficiently spoiled. But for much of the film, Irving simply states the horrible things he said and then goes off. There’s an action missing to him.

Which is the film’s core problem. This is a very important and urgent story, smartly told (largely). It’s got strong actors working their ass off. But director Mick Jackson never translates that urgency to the camera’s eye. It’s essentially a TV movie. A TV movie made by people who know what they’re doing, sure. An HBO TV movie. But a TV movie nonetheless, and one that seems to have trouble dramatizing the legal proceedings that make up the majority of its runtime. One that also seems to make the decision to cut to a few recurring motifs that don’t really do anything thematically, most notably repeated sequences of Lipstadt jogging that still confuse me as to their relevance. The cutaways are particularly annoying in a film that seems so unable to muster up the energy to make its important things hit hard.

There are some grace notes. The sequence where they investigate Auschwitz (Denial was the first non-documentary work that was able to film at the actual camp) is haunting and beautiful, the kind of quiet grace the rest of the film might have done well to utilize. A first hearing between Irving and the legal team is the kind of wit and cleverness that the film could have better displayed in its court proceedings.

It’s a smart film and an important one. But I do earnestly wish there was something more exciting to it. A punch, a power, a grace that just doesn’t end up ultimately being there. It’s smart and respectable and you feel like a smart and respectable type for seeing it. But the passion isn’t really there, and that’s what a story like this needs right now. Passion.

On the other hand, at least it’s the first biopic I’ve seen in months to not include the people actually involved at the end, so kudos for that.

Grade: C+