Thursday, 13 April 2017

Denial: Film Review

Denial: Film Review

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Andrew Scott, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall
Director: Mick Jackson

With made for TV aspirations and lacking a distinctly cathartic or powereful end, Denial's a courtroom film that really, sadly, falls a little flat when it ultimately enters the courtoom in its final stages.
Rachel Weisz in Denial

Centring around Rachel Weisz's American scholar and Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt and the libel case brought against her by denier David Irving (played with snake-like obsequiousness by a slender Timothy Spall), Denial concentrates on presenting the facts and the nuts and bolts of the case with relative solidity.

Choosing to deal with the fact that Lipstadt and her legal team had to prove the Holocaust did actually happen due to the intricacies and idiosyncracies of English law, Denial presents the usual tropes for the genre (a headstrong American who wants to pursue her way of doing things, a couple of showdowns et al) but delivers them all with little bluster and scant regard for histrionics.

It helps that Weisz is surrounded by some good sturdy character acting from the likes of Sherlock star Andrew Scott as lawyer Anthony Julius, who delivers a nuanced and subtle turn at the start of the film, before fading into the background during the court proceedings. Equally blessed with similar amounts of both stern temperament and righteous indignation is Tom Wilkinson as Richard Rampton, a prosecuting barrister.

But director Jackson is smart enough to ensure that this docudrama (with its verbatim dialect and dialogue ripped from the court proceedings) works better by humanising the pathetic Irving and his appalling take on what Hitler did, and letting the moral outrage seethe from the screen rather than turn him into a spitting fury caricature that evokes anger and is played OTT. Thankfully, a sneering Spall delivers in large spades, making his monstrous man all about the small facial movements as he spouts his foul beliefs and profligates his lies about what the regime did. It's not an easy task to make the man come to life, but thanks to large amounts of restraint and subtlety, it works better than it should.
Rachel Weisz in Denial

To describe Denial as workmanlike may sound like to damn it with feint praise, but in all honesty, this better-suited-for-the-small-screen has some sequences that truly work.

A visit to Auschwitz is narratively compulsory and puts barriers between Lipstadt and Rampton that need to be there for conflict of approaches, but by delivering the sequence with a degree of sensitivity, the gravity of what transpired there is hard to deny.

And yet, when the film enters the courtroom in the final furlong, the sense of depth of discussion and implications of what's playing out never quite feels as weighty as the subject matter would suggest. The courtroom scenes lack the OTT antics of barristers or the moments that droop into cliche, but it's hard to see what else could be done.

Smartly using the media throng and the news reporters to set the scene rather than exposition, the film manages to convey a sense of time with considerable aplomb, while simultaneously allowing Lipstadt to become more disgruntled that she's not able to take the stand and denounce Irving and his poisonous beliefs.

However, the more interesting kernel of the film lies in the contrast between the American and British judicial systems. From shots of a judge carefully taking and stirring his tea while eyeing a plate of biscuits, the sense of opposites is obvious in its studiousness and subtleties.

It's a shame that this isn't brought out more on the screen, but in fairness, the film couldn't risk trivialising its subject matter and the decision to simply present the case and the teams in a very matter of fact fashion means that the movie is never likely to soar when you'd expect it to.

Maybe that's no bad thing, and in all honesty, Denial is eminently watchable thanks to its ensemble cast, who all turn in well constructed performances, even if parts of them (particularly Weisz's out of her legal depth Lipstadt) veer dangerously close to feeling stereotyped.

Ultimately, Denial's attentiveness to its subject matter and its avoidance of preachy overtones mean the drama's solid but never spectacular. And while it follows the formula of a courtroom thriller, its inability (or perhaps, refusal) to give it a bit more theatrics mean the overall tone and resolution is more muted and respectful than powerful.

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