‘Denial’ is one of those well-meaning movies about an important subject that isn’t particularly good, but tends to get a free pass in awards season thanks to sincerity and presenting a positive social message. The movie really doesn’t have any surprises, even for those unaware of the true story on which it’s based.
The film plays out according to a predetermined formula. The audience gets to feel outraged by offensive behavior with the calm and soothing comfort of knowing that all problems will be solved by the time the credits roll. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll love this. If not, you know what to expect.
Rachel Wiesz stars Deborah E. Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian who is passionate about spreading the word about the atrocities that occurred in World War II in the hopes that they’re never repeated. Obviously, she doesn’t take too kindly to any Holocaust denier, and in particular has printed many harsh things about the infamous British denier David Irving (Timothy Spall), who has essentially made a career out of being a racist while calling himself a historian. Irving sues Listadt for libel after finding a particularly scathing passage about him in her latest work, which means that Lipstadt must go to trial. Due to the peculiarities of the British court system, the onus in on her to prove that what she said is true. To do that, she hires a crack Brit legal team led by Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson.
No spoilers, but it’s safe to say that you can comfortably predict how this trial will turn out. No matter how loudly the dramatic music plays during moments of doubt that director Mick Jackson (‘The Bodyguard’, ‘Volcano’) lingers on, it’s clear how this thing will get resolved. Fair enough. It would be disappointing otherwise, to say the least. However, that means there’s not much dramatic tension involved in the sluggish 110-minute running time. The film is essentially one big, long, obvious excuse to feel good about not being a racist, mostly told through long courtroom monologues. Yawn. The only real question is how well it’s played by the actors.
Sadly, that’s a mixed bag as well. Timothy Small makes for an amusingly bitter and intelligent villain, but essentially only plays one smug note that gets rather shrill. The same can be said for Rachel Weisz, whose character could be dismissed as an ethnic stereotype were it not for the positive message. Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson seem to have been instructed to play things “as British as possible” without much variance.
‘Denial’ is essentially a glorified TV movie designed to be comfort food for folks who enjoy participating in outrage culture. It’s fairly well produced and the cast are good despite their limited subject matter, but it’s nothing particularly special that will be remembered for longer than its theatrical release window and awards push.