For many Jews, there is no higher calling nor more sacred cow than a film that reminds the public — that is, non-Jews — of the manifestation of anti-Semitism taken to its ultimate extreme: The Nazis’ extermination of the Jews of Europe.
So the British film “Denial” will be reflexively lauded by some as a must-see movie in the perpetual fight to rally good people against prejudice, ignorance and hatred.
Yet the movie is so compromised, pandering and self-congratulatory in its depiction of the events surrounding the 2000 libel trial brought in England by Holocaust denier David Irving against publisher Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, the Jewish-American author of “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” (1993), that it ends up obfuscating and burying its most important theme.
“Denial” opens in wide release Oct. 21.
The misguided screenplay by David Hare and the hackneyed direction of Mick Jackson conspire to shrink “Denial” into a made-for-TV-ish tale of the emotional travails of an American Jew with a crass Queens accent who’s compelled to endure the men’s club of English jurisprudence.
Lipstadt (portrayed by Rachel Weisz more like a petulant graduate student than a media-savvy professor with a Ph.D. in Jewish history and the author of “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”) does not testify in court, per the strategy of her sharp young solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott of PBS’ “Sherlock”) and seasoned barrister Richard Rampton (the perennially great Tom Wilkinson). However, the camera is always spot-on to record her facial reaction to every development—a real boon for the viewer otherwise unable to fathom if her side has just won a point or suffered a setback.
The problem with structuring the film in that simpleminded Hollywood way where the stakes are distilled and concentrated into the fate of one character is that it undercuts the effect of a judgment against Irving (played by the estimable Timothy Spall of “Mr. Turner”).
The court’s categorical rejection of his specious arguments that Hitler never ordered the Final Solution and that Auschwitz was a labor camp with no capacity for mass killing would have far-flung consequences well beyond Lipstadt’s feelings and reputation.
The movie’s heavy-handed emotional manipulation is especially galling because “Denial” takes pains to position Lipstadt as the guardian of the Holocaust’s far-reaching legacy in contrast to the logic-based, strategy-oriented, results-only lawyers.
In preparation for the court case, Rampton takes Lipstadt to fog-shrouded Auschwitz to examine what he will later call “the scene of the crime.” He imperiously lights a cigarette atop the ruins of a crematorium and dispassionately interrogates a forensics expert about cyanide levels in the walls, provoking an angry tirade from Lipstadt.
Later, in the early stages of the trial, a Holocaust survivor pulls Lipstadt aside to demand that she and others be invited to testify on behalf of the defense. Lipstadt had already proposed this strategy to her lawyers, and she insists again—only to be rebuffed a second time.
Lipstadt understands that the trial itself is an affront to survivors and the victims. Unfortunately, “Denial” loses sight of that key point by the time the verdict is handed down and the filmmakers scramble to gild the victory with the requisite shots of vindication and self-congratulation.
It’s all very by-the-numbers, as is the chaser that nothing (facts, least of all) can completely extinguish anti-Semitic attitudes.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Rampton comes around by the end, displaying an unambiguous antipathy for Nazi sympathizers and their followers. It’s another movie cliché, of course, the hired gun who is converted to the heroine’s values and beliefs.
For some reason, perhaps because of our minority status, Jews tend to take special satisfaction in screen depictions of gentiles allying with us. (Oskar Schindler, anyone?) It’s comforting, I know, but it’s a feint — like so much else in this shallow, dismaying movie — in order to avoid confronting difficult and unpopular questions.
Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.