Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Denial (2016)

Film: Denial (2016)
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott
Director: Mick Jackson
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Real life films should always be about people that are only mildly famous, in my opinion.  I'm not someone that enjoys biopics, but if you're going to do one, I like it when it's a story that hasn't already been told a dozen times.  Who needs yet another picture about Marilyn Monroe or Truman Capote-I want something like Denial, or at least I do in theory, as Deborah Lipstadt's story is truly compelling and hasn't really been shared to the world in the same way.  This film, about a woman who went to court to essentially prove that a Holocaust denier was, indeed, whom she said he was, has a rich enough true-life story that it almost makes up for the fact that it's not very good.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film center on Deborah (Weisz), a woman from Queens (there's a great joke at the end of the movie about this that I was the only person in the theater who laughed at...and yes, Weisz transforms herself from a Westminster dialect to a Queens bravado with shocking ease) who is an accomplished academic on a book tour.  Her text is about Holocaust denial, and a study of Holocaust denial, and is the sort of minutia of academia that feels authentic (I was a history major near this time period, so I know how specific some of these studies can get).  In a stunt, David Irving (Spall), a famed Holocaust denier, verbally spars with her during a lecture and challenges her for some of the comments she made about him in the study.  Later, we find out that he's suing her for libel, and with the help of two of Britain's most famous real-life attorneys Richard Rampton (Wilkinson) and Anthony Julius (Scott), she makes a case against Irving.

You don't have to know the real-life story to realize pretty early on that Lipstadt is going to win this case; it's hard to imagine a modern-day story that would show that a Holocaust denier could beat a Jewish woman in court, particularly when you see actual victims of the Holocaust in the audience.  The film fails in a way when it comes to this obviousness, underselling certain scenes (I felt like several of the cross-examinations were a bit dull, particularly when Wilkinson was going after them), and underlining other ones that only, apparently, Deborah isn't able to understand (like repeatedly explaining to her why they can't have victims of the Holocaust speak during the trial for fear of what Irving would do to them on the stand).  The film is too opaque in this regard-it doesn't understand that even those unfamiliar will know how this ends, and doesn't work with the interesting dynamics between the players enough to make that familiarity less of an issue.

Weisz, though, is deliciously entertaining in her role as Deborah Lipstadt.  An actress most well-known for moderated introverts and society wives, she clearly is relishing Lipstadt's up-front and frank demeanor, and the accent may be my favorite from an actor so far this year.  I particularly loved her strange dynamic with Andrew Scott, how they play him as both aloof and deliciously sexy, knowing that they can't totally stand away from all of the rumors about Princess Diana's affinity for Anthony Julius in real-life.  Her work with Wilkinson is less entertaining-indeed, Wilkinson, one of those actors I either love or loathe depending on the film, is more one-dimensional than you'd hope, and their scenes together are arguably the weakest of the film, and since they are also critical junctures in the picture, that shakes its foundation somewhat.  Spall, though never as good as he was in the marvelous Mr. Turner, takes on his bombastic role with appropriate aplomb-if the film were a bigger hit I could see him getting into Oscar conversations, though I don't know that he deserves to be.

Those are my thoughts on this picture-how about yours?  Are you a fan of Denial, or are you like me wishing they'd better assessed their assets in the casting department better?  What other recent biopics did you actually end up learning something from?  And who else deserves a big-screen tale?  Share below!

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