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TIFF Film Review: DENIAL

In politics, the difference between fact and opinion have perhaps never been as blurred as they are today in the age of social media. In this context, it is hard to imagine a movie more relevant and important than the upcoming drama Denial. And it is disappointing to see what the movie does not do—provide a compelling way to tackle the subject.

The story of the film is that of real-life history professor Dr. Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) after she is sued in England for libel by a man she named in her book about Holocaust deniers (Timothy Spall, with all his mousy evilness). To successfully defend herself, she must prove in court, essentially, that the Holocaust occurred. Led by a team of quirky barristers and solicitors (Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson), she sets out to achieve something that seems straightforward yet is not actually so.

Have you ever had a conversation with a conspiracy theorist? You start at a natural disadvantage because they have become amateur experts on their subject matter. Try convincing a flat-Earther, for example, that the Earth is round, and you’ll be stunned at the many things that to you may seem obvious but for which they have dismissive answers like “those pictures are staged” or “the eyewitnesses are lying.” So, too, do some of the baddies in Denial dismiss, with wily cleverness and skepticism, obvious facts as potentially staged or contrived.

The point that the movie is making is that we cannot have rational discussions by turning into opinion matters that are of fact. As Weisz explains early on, importantly, one can debate why we think something like the Holocaust happened and who bears responsibility, but whether the act occurred is not properly debated.

But while the film raises all of these critical questions in today’s world of 140 characters and soundbites, it never quite delivers on its potential to enthrall us with an answer. The first problem is that the trial strategy for Lipstadt and her team becomes clinical, with meticulous but also obviously incomplete scientific explanations of the physical evidence uncovered at Auschwitz. It is both difficult to follow and clearly oversimplified—the narrative structure loses the ultimate point that each morsel is trying to prove. This is fundamentally an academic paper brought to the big screen, not exactly gripping drama.

But procedural obsession can be overlooked for realistic characters. Denial instead over-dramatizes most of them. Lipstadt, on trial for her professional reputation and her lifelong work, seems confusingly uninterested in heeding her attorney’s advice, and appears mostly unable to help them in their investigation into the case they have to prove. The lawyers, for their part, are either buffoonish (Andrew Scott’s younger solicitor) or unconcerned with engaging their client much (Tom Wilkinson’s older patriarch). And Spall’s character is, of course, a simple, small little man, easily fooled into acceding to disadvantageous trial strategies after he has purportedly been so clever as to organize the entire affair.

Opinion hiding as fact and subjectivity posing as verifiable statements are a lurking danger in our cultural conversation. Denial tackles this topic, obliquely, and raises all the right questions but provides little answers. The end result is a decent but ultimately unfulfilling film that will have piqued your interest but not really whet your appetite. But as with all things criticism, don’t take my word for it, of course, this is all only an opinion piece after all.

Grade: C+

About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film ‘The Lost Weekend’ is pure coincidence

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