How flatulently didactic is Mick Jackson’s courtroom drama-cum-biopic Denial? The opening scene features the protagonist literally teaching a class on the theme of the film. Denial covers the 1999 trial in which writer and historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) defended the veracity of the Holocaust in court after egomaniacal denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) sued her for libel. Yes, it’s yet another proudly bland quasi-indie drama piously intent on teaching you a lesson that you should already know.
That an alarming number people either intentionally deny or remain unintentionally unaware of the facts of the Holocaust (I recall a college roommate’s girlfriend asking me if Life is Beautiful was based on a true story) gives this 110-minute nap an unearned aura of awards season importance. Add the pseudo-timely analogues between Irving and a certain charismatically vulgar, monstrously entitled, media-manipulating, hate-legitimizing lunatic currently running for president on the Republican ticket, and Denial almost falls ass-backward into relevance.
But like any other movie, Denial was years in the making, and didn’t just vaporize out of thin air as soon Trump started dominating the headlines. Beyond the gravity of the subject matter, though, there’s very little substance and conflict to Denial, not even enough to fill an average episode of Law & Order. Spall makes for a mesmerizing human monster as Irving, equal parts Sean Hannity and Nosferatu, but his cartoon villainy only underlines the complete lack of complexity on hand in Denial. Once the clean lines between good and evil have been written on Lipstadt’s chalkboard, there’s nowhere left to go.
We’re on Lipstadt’s team no matter what, because the only alternative is an anti-Semitic scumbag with awful teeth. Weisz acquits herself well enough in the lead role of Lipstadt, even though she’s given little to do besides behave with obstinate obtuseness, just so her lawyers can explain and re-explain the details of the case for our benefit. Meanwhile, the audience gets abandoned without any nourishment except for moldy courtroom drama trappings and a snuggly shared sensation of righteous superiority over an obvious evil.
Neither Lipstadt nor any Holocaust survivors testified at the libel trial, allowing Irving’s own words and a litany of world-class barristers led by Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott to speak for her, a sacrifice Lipstadt describes as an act of “self-denial.” Maybe that attempt to forge a personal connection with the anti-Semitic show pony Irving was more nuanced in Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, but it’s an all-too-typical clunker in David Hare’s drab screenplay adaptation.
Denial will work for many people based on subject matter and presumed moral obligation alone, as there’s always high demand for films that reaffirm the core beliefs of their intended audiences. I prefer a film that challenges and provokes my core beliefs, and more importantly one that challenges and provokes the limitations of the cinematic form. The only thing that Denial challenged was my ability to stay awake.