‘Denial’ might boast intriguing subject matter and a hell of a cast, but the movie also proves that good intentions can easily be undone by poor storytelling. The movie is dullsville – dry, predictable and preachy in ways that make it a tough sit.
There are pieces that work in the broken machine. However, it’s the sort of disappointment that you can’t help but lament as it limps across the screen desperately trying to find some sort of entertainment and drama in passionless routine.
Like seemingly all self-important and lazy stabs at Oscar bait, ‘Denial’ is based on a true story. In this case, it’s about a historian named Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) who made a point of decrying the works of the infamously pompous British Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall). Always desperate for attention, Irving sued Lipstadt for libel after her book was published. Since that trial took place in the UK, the onus was on Lipstadt to prove the falsity of Irving’s absurd claims rather than the other way around. That meant that the writer would have to hire a crack British legal team to win her case. Since the movie features such charmingly authoritative Brit thesps as Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson as the lawyers, it’s pretty easy to assume that those folks were the best that legal system had to offer (and they’re charmers too!).
That’s a strong premise with a great villain and the story is bursting with potential to latch onto themes bubbling around the zeitgeist right now. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t take advantage of any of those opportunities. Instead, screenwriter David Hare lays out the tale as a checklist of courtroom drama clichés, while director Mick Jackson (‘The Bodyguard’) shoots everything as flatly as possible. You could say the whole thing feels like a TV movie if that weren’t an insult to how good TV has become these days. Even without knowing the actual events, it’s pretty easy to see how this story will play out beat for beat. The filmmakers don’t bother messing with the formula they’ve chosen, and the movie never builds much momentum to carry audiences along.
Fortunately, the cast is strong, which helps. Rachel Weisz might be dragged down by a dodgy New Yawk accent and a role oddly rooted in uncomfortable stereotypes, but she does her best to create something resembling a human under the circumstances. Timothy Spall makes for a fantastic villain, playing Irving as an overconfident and arrogant buffoon so thrilled in his own thoughts that he’s easily duped. It’s a cartoon rendition of a genuinely disturbed man, but Spall finds a certain humanity while mugging.
Unfortunately, the other roles are more plot devices and exposition delivery systems than actual characters, so there’s not much for the talented Brits playing them to do. Wilkinson and Scott coast by on the charm of their established personas, but that doesn’t do much to save the dull movie from itself.
‘Denial’ is a disappointment for anyone who genuinely cares about the story or, you know, how stories are told in general. It’s a big snoozefest masquerading as important drama that will bore those who are tired of this brand of Oscar bait. However, lazy viewers who merely want to have their liberal values confirmed within a cozy and predictable dramatic structure will likely enjoy the flick nonetheless. It’s one of those movies that people describe as “nice” because there’s nothing particularly substantial to say about it. If that’s your cup of tea, get excited. Everyone else may as well just ignore the film’s existence or wait until you can view it on a service that will allow you to skip over every scene that doesn’t feature Timothy Spall.