Denial movie full length review - Flat, monochromatic treatment of dramatic subject
While Denial is easy to watch and not particularly boring I found it also unrewarding. The story is a compelling one, especially if one has a strong interest in history and is familiar with the epistemological questions raised.
Denial, however, allows for little nuance and no tension, making for a monochromatic experience.
The film's characters are portrayed as each having but a single dimension. Deborah Lipstadt is the crusading Holocaust historian. Of her the audience learns that she's got a Queens accent, goes jogging, loves her dog, but little else. What prompted her to teach this subject? Why publish a book about denial? By way of explanation the film offers that her mother named her Deborah. There is a similar lack of substance to each of the other characters. We are told David Irving's Holocaust denial stems from his childhood in WW II but nothing is said of what motivates him, and nothing of his work on issues such as Dresden or the naval action which saw his father sunk. Anthony Julius is accused of being after his own aggrandizement, but there's nothing in the film to suggest this or to suggest that the viewer should care what his motivations are.
The plot arc is as simple as the characters. Lipstadt is introduced and accused of libel and then for the remainder of the film we watch her legal team go about her defense. With Irving wild-eyed and unpleasant, the Lipstadt team noble and hard-working, there is little doubt of the outcome, even if the viewer is unfamiliar with the case. The one moment of dramatic tension comes at the close of the trial, when a question from the judge seems to throw Lipstadt's defense off balance. While the audience seems intended to worry, at this point with Irving so thoroughly distasteful and Lipstadt and company so noble, dedicated, and devoted to such good wines there can be little doubt of the trial's outcome.
Steven Spielberg is referred to towards the end of the film, and indeed there is a Spielbergesque quality to several scenes, especially the visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau. It is winter. The camp is deserted and frosty with snow. Lipstadt is upset that her lawyers are not sufficiently respectful of the dead. The film's score, the ghostly images of victims descending the gas chamber stairs, a technical expert's injunction to step carefully because the site is hallowed ground, all hammer home to the viewer what must be felt, lest one mistakenly have an illusion of choice. Likewise in the closing scenes Lipstadt goes jogging and triumphantly stands before a female statue. Atop the plinth the camera holds on Winged Victory. At this point my date leaned over to quip that this was in case we weren't clear on what had happened. When a film's devices are chuckled at this is an indication they are perhaps not effective.
Curiously Denial presents Lipstadt's triumph as what she did not do, rather than what was done. At one point a question of conscience is introduced in the person of a Holocaust survivor who demands to testify on behalf of those who did not survive. Lipstadt assures her that she'll have her day in court, despite Julius & Co.'s decision that there will be no survivor testimony (strictly for the survivors' good we are told, as Irving would tear them apart). Lipstadt is torn, and argues for the survivors but in the end she and they must remain silent. Lipstadt's lack of contribution to her own defense is underscored by several exchanges with Julius where she forcefully gives guidance yet is brushed off. Julius and colleague Richard Rampton obviously know what they are doing as they win Lipstadt's case, but the dynamics involved are such that Lipstadt's closing lecture left this viewer a bit confused. We shouldn't be so quick to claim what we'd have done in the place of Germans faced with the Holocaust, Lipstadt's college students hear. In the face of public obloquy fighting evil is hard work they are told. So the right thing to do to resist genocide is to remain silent while one's high-powered lawyers argue in civil court? I left Denial feeling less roused to action than I might have.