Friday, February 17, 2017

Denial Makes A Good Argument With An Unsatisfying Protagonist.

The Good: Good performances, Engaging story, Interesting supporting characters, Good direction
The Bad: Unlikable protagonist, Odd seeds of supporting characters that go undeveloped
The Basics: Denial does an exceptional job of creating an impressive antagonist and characterizing an interesting legal battle without making its protagonist likable or enjoyable to watch.

With the current political climate of the world being what it is, when my wife and I talk about politics lately, our conversations tend to come back to holocausts. Genocide has happened multiple times in our history and it continues to happen and there has been more than one holocaust, but the continuing genocides tend to get swept aside when people discuss the Holocaust (capital "H," from World War II). It's almost as if people honestly believe humanity learned some grand lesson from the systematic extermination of the Jews, gypsies, and gays in World War II and actually lived up to the vow of "never again." So when, in one of our discussions, I made a flippant remark about "Holocaust deniers" and my wife made a comment akin to "whoever those people are" and I tried to confirm that such people exist, I found myself in an odd position. We had recently re-watched Religulous (reviewed here!) and I noted that there was a segment in that, to which my wife looked horrified and said, "I thought that was a joke, a gag!" I realized how entirely ignorant of the subject of Holocaust deniers I was when I said "Well, I know [now former] President Ahmedinejad of Iran is a Holocaust denier . . . of course, he also doesn't believe there are any gay people in Iran, so . . ." and then quickly told my wife that I could not answer any follow-up questions on the subject of Holocaust deniers. I knew they existed, I kind of wrote them off as ridiculous and I never actually tried to learn about them. But, last year at the outset of Oscar Pandering Season, I recall there being a film about the subject, so I figured that it was time to take it in.

The film is Denial and I had been interested in seeing it when it came out, but I never got around to it. More than the subject, seeing something where Tom Wilkinson was once again poised to astonish me with his dramatic acting was more than enough to get me to want to watch Denial. But, long before Wilkinson appears on screen, it is clear that Timothy Spall is being given the chance to truly show off his chops in the film. Denial is based upon historical events which I am largely ignorant of, so this is a pure review of the film alone.

Deborah Lipstadt is a professor at Emory University in 1994, when she publishes the book Denying The Holocaust. While at a discussion of her book, Holocaust denier David Irving stands up to assert that Lipstadt has been denigrating his work. Irving challenges Lipstadt and offers $1000 to anyone in the audience who can prove Hitler ordered the extermination of the Jews and when security is called, Irving appears to surrender. But the entire event is a set-up for Irving; he had it filmed and he uses it as a bedrock to sue Lipstadt. Watching footage of Irving, Lipstadt decides not to settle and in 1996 when the case is brought to the high court of London, Lipstadt confers with British Barrister Anthony Julius, who handled Princess Diana's divorce! When she learns that in British court, she must prove that Irving is a liar, Lipstadt spends years building her case against Irving.

When the process of discovery becomes drawn out and expensive, Lipstadt has to fundraise and she finds herself in conflict with her legal team and its strategies. When Julius turns the case over to Solicitor Richard Rampton, Lipstadt takes him to Auschwitz for discovery and exploration. There, she finds herself in conflict with the Solicitor as he needs scientific proof and the only major studies that have been done were actually performed by Holocaust deniers. As the trial nears, Lipstadt is astonished that her side does not want her to testify and Julius and Rampton are working to secure a trial by judge, instead of a jury trial. While they are successful in that motion, the trial begins with Irving characterizing himself as David in a "David Vs. Goliath" type struggle and Lipstadt begins to fear that her side might not be able to defeat Irving and his rhetoric.

Denial is a deliberately difficult movie and there is something refreshing about watching a film about the Holocaust that explores the history of the event without creating a story that tugs on the heartstrings. To be clear; Holocaust films - as a genre - have merit and value for giving voice to the victims of the Holocaust . . . but there is a repetitive quality to them. When a friend of my family told me that she was spending months doing a sort of "Holocaust Movie Marathon" to learn more about the Holocaust, my reaction was "what a horribly depressing way to spend months!" Humans need some of that in order to understand the magnitude of the Holocaust and its importance on a human level, but I honestly believe that if you can't get how horrible the Holocaust was out of two or three good Holocaut movies, you'll probably never truly get it. So, Denial is a very different film in exploring the Holocaust and its effects.

One of the most difficult aspects of discussing Denial is that it is based on actual events. As a result, it is tough to talk about the characters in the film as if they were not real people. So, I write the next words with respect and factuality; anything I write about Deborah Lipstadt is solely about the character in Denial, not the historical person. The problem with Denial on a character level is that the protagonist is largely unlikable. Lipstadt is presented in Denial as loud and irrational. She quickly becomes the greatest liability to her own case in that Lipstadt is committed to giving a voice to the survivors of the Holocaust instead of fighting the legal case she is presented. Lipstadt hires legal professionals and is often unwilling to accept their counsel or expertise.

Characterizing Lipstadt as overly emotional and loud sets up an unfortunate dichotomy within Denial. The men are cool, professional and logical, the women are guided by their emotions to the detriment of order and reason. Lipstadt has the right perspective and the truth on her side, but because the film begins with Lipstadt declaring that she does not argue with Holocaust deniers and confront those who disagree with her, it makes her appear entrenched and illogical instead of in the right.

Denial is led by Rachel Weisz and she plays Lipstadt as strong and smart, but the fact that the film has to actually address how Lipstadt acts informs the viewer almost explicitly just how annoying Weisz is in her performance. Weisz is best in Denial when reacting. Director Mick Jackson does an impressive job of capturing Weisz when she is quiet and emotional and that illustrates great performance and direction far better than any line Weisz delivers in Denial.

Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson are amazing in Denial. Spall plays Irving as dogmatic and angry and he is consistent in every moment of his performance. Wilkinson is predictably delightful in the role of the Solicitor. Richard Rampton in Denial is solid and rational and when Wilkinson plays him with a deathly stare he truly nails home the core of the character. Spall, Wilkinson, and Weisz are surrounded by incredible raw talent like Andrew Scott (Julius), Mark Gatiss, and incredibly briefly John Sessions.

Denial is an intriguing look at law and scientific proof, more than it is about proving that the Holocaust in World War II occurred. It is fascinating to see the machinations of the legal process and it is generally well-presented . . . even if the protagonist is neither.

For other films that explore the Holocaust, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Schindler's List


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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