So, award season is over, and all those that tried for nominations are shyly scuttling onto home release before the bigger winners shove them back into obscurity. One is Denial, which has all the trappings of an award hopeful: It is about the Holocaust, it has a human interest and three meaty parts for award-worthy actors; Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson. However, for some reason it never appeared at the award shows. So now Entertainment One brings Denial to DVD, let's see if this film was an Oscar snub or whether it was rightfully ignored.
Based on actual events, as told by Historian Deborah Lipstadt in her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, Denial tells the story of the libel case, David Irving v Penguin Books Ltd. The case brought against Penguin Books by David Irving alleged that Deborah Lipstadt in her earlier book Denying the Holocaust (1993) had negatively affected his reputation. The court case not only meant that Lipstadt had to defend her comments, but also prove that Irving had distorted historical facts to fit his agenda.
I am not really sure where to begin with Denial. It is a film that is very hard to talk about, partly because of the controversial subject of Holocaust denial, but also because this film is not very good. It is probably best to start by examining the parts I liked about the film, the first being an incredibly interesting premise. Denial treads the line between plausibility and outlandishness, that is a hard one to follow, one would never expect someone to deny the Holocaust happened, but the fact that they did and that person brought a libel suit is something that is intensely engaging. Similarly Tom Wilkinson as Richard Rampton, the barrister set to argue the case, and Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius, the solicitor tasked with preparing the strategy, both do a fantastic job balancing the emotional weight of the situation as well as asking the tough questions that need asking in the face of a denier. Indeed anything in the courtroom is electrifying as Wilkinson delivers speech after speech, tearing down Timothy Spall's infuriatingly smug David Irving.
Having outlined the parts of Denial that were particularly good, now is the slightly trickier task of pointing out what I felt that the film got wrong. Firstly the film is strangely paced, though this maybe be because the film is set over a six-year period, and has to set up the two characters of Irving and Lipstadt, the legal team, the key points in the trial, character development and conclude satisfactorily. That is a lot to cover in a one hundred-minute movie. While the actual trial is incredibly compelling, the bits that the film decided to focus on outside of the trial feel rushed and unnecessary. For example, there is a strange scene that comes out of nowhere where one of the legal aides is working on the case at home, and her boyfriend is exasperated about the amount of time she is working on the trial. There is also a semi-conflict, when a Holocaust survivor confronts Lipstadt to ask that the survivors be called to the stand. It keeps coming back, and each time is dealt with in the same manor.
The shoddy pace of the film really effects the emotional core of the film. The previously mentioned Holocaust survivor could have been a great piece of pathos, but instead, it was an irritating distraction that was over far too quickly. Each thing the film tries to make out as important, feels small and insignificant, either because it is a non-issue blown out of proportion or a victory so tiny you have to pay close attention to see that it is there.
The final thing that pushed this film over the edge into bad territory for me was an irritating central performance by the talented actress Rachel Weisz. Now this is not a slight on the real Deborah Lipstadt, rather a criticism of the way that Rachel Weisz played her. Denial's Lipstadt is loud abrasive and intensely irritating; she is the cause of most of the non-conflict, either not fully trusting her legal team and being overly sentimental and memorialistic when Richard Rampton starts asking the tough questions at Auschwitz. Her moralising and focus on emotion during a trial that should have been purely factual is at odds with the rest of the cast, and meant that when it was an appropriate time for pontificating about free speech and the Holocaust it was drowned out by the other times that happened.
It is a real shame because this film could have been a fantastic courtroom drama, about David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt. It could have had great relevance in the modern post-truth world of fake news, but instead it feels sloppy, coasting on the weight of its subject and the talent of its cast. It tries to be worthy, but instead it just feels worthless.
Denial is the sort of film that would have worked better as a documentary. The overly dramatised and emotional nature of a fiction film means that the core messages are lost amid a messy and disjointed narrative that tries to cobble together small moments from a trial lasting six years into a three-act structure.
This part of the review is perhaps the most objective, as one can observe whether a release has digital visual or audio errors. One can see whether the Menus are easily navigable, that the subtitles are clear and easy to read. With this in mind, mechanically this release is a sound one, there are no errors in the film or soundtrack in the transfer to DVD. The menus are indeed easily navigable, a little simple maybe, but a simple DVD means there is less to get wrong. The release of Denial produced by Entertainment One is certainly a solid effort, a fine DVD for a painfully average film.
This is where the release could have really shone; it deals with such a weighty subject that some historical context could have been provided, maybe a short documentary, about the case, made using news footage, or testimonials from participants or commentators. As a young person in their mid-20s I have no recollection of this court case or who indeed David Irving was, and it would have perhaps been helpful to provide some much-needed background on Irving. This is what we could have received.
What we got, however, was what the disc calls and what I hesitate to call a "Making of" documentary, that instead acts as a bit of promotional material for the film that offers very little insight into the methods used to make the film as well as the story this movie is telling. Rather it is just a surface glance at how this film was made. All in all, it is a disappointing state of affairs that a DVD release of a film that could have been an important exploration of free speech in such a politically charged time is underrepresented in its bonus material.
Denial is a disappointing film. It is disappointing because it feels like it knew that it had talent attached to it that would carry it to award show glory. Yet it wasted that talent, it coasted on the names of Timothy Spall, Rachel Weisz and Tom Wilkinson by giving them underdeveloped, over-baked material. It coasted on the subject, and it feels like it’s coasted on favourable reviews to boost DVD sales. I see Denial as a last resort TV film, if there is nothing else on then by all means give it a watch, but with the bonus material that Entertainment One has provided, it is not worth buying it outright.