Denial



Movie season has officially begun! Last year I made my first attempt to watch all the Academy Award nominated films before the awards show, and I failed. There were a few films I just could not fit into my schedule, but all that is in the past.  This year is my second go at it. The Academy Awards have been a special part of my life since birth; my mom watched them while in labor with me and it was something we shared every year until she passed. I am more determined than ever this year to see every single film up for nomination (okay, I'm trying to be reasonable, so I'm going to try to watch the films nominated for Best Picture, Lead Actor & Actress, Supporting Actor & Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography at least). 

Since nominations won't be out for quite awhile, I'm only guessing at which films might be contenders. With that in mind, my first film of the season was Denial.

I went into this film with only a vague idea of what it was about - a trial involving a Holocaust denier. It's based on real events, and stars Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, and Timothy Spall. Rachel Weisz plays author Deborah Lipstadt, whose work on Holocaust deniers is called into question by historian David Irving, played by Timothy Spall. Weisz plays Lipstadt with a remarkable intensity and I love seeing Timothy Spall play such an unlikable character - he does it with panache. 



I love a good courtroom drama film (The People vs. OJ Simpson was my most recent favorite), and this one kept my interest the entire way through. It never stalled or fell flat and it was fascinating to see the British judicial system at work from an American's perspective. I must confess that seeing so many gorgeous shots of London was a huge highlight for me.

There were a few scenes that seemed strange and ineffective to me - Lipshadt has a couple of visual imaginings of Holocaust victims at different points in the film that felt forced and almost animated in a crude way. The scenes that silently hang on the ruins of Auschwitz in the fog were more powerful in evoking authentic sorrow and grief (indeed, I teared up) than the strange flashback memories. These still, quiet meditations on Auschwitz were my favorite moments in the film. They felt both respectful and mournful - they showed the sorrowful beauty of a landscape affected by unimaginable suffering. 



Where this film fails for me -similar to the way that I felt Doubt and Spotlight failed- in its reluctance to delve into a deeper examination of human behavior. Irving is treated as an outlier and a pariah. There are scenes where he looks especially gaunt, alone and small. There's a scene where he gets hit with an egg and sadly brushes it off his coat in the courtroom. There are moments that humanize him - but only as what seems to be an afterthought. He is never humanized in Lipstadt's eyes - she never has a moment where she feels anything toward him other than contempt. What should she, you might ask? But I think there is the missed opportunity; by treating those who spout hatred as outliers, we separate ourselves as the good. We fail to see that the worst monstrosities are committed by those who feel morally justified- people who would consider themselves to be "good people also. Indeed, this is a key lesson of the Holocaust - even "normal" people have the potential to carryout horrors and sometimes the worst monsters are within. Even if Lipstadt didn't feel that way (god knows she's justified not to), I hoped to leave the film feeling more conflicted than I did. 

To me the film is anti-climactic. The trial is won by the good, lost by the evil, and everyone cheers and moves on (signaled quite clearly by both Lipshadt and her lawyer turning off the telly where Irving is on a talk show simultaneously - as if to say "That's it! The end!"). I just wanted more. 

Overall, it was a decent film but not an award winner in my eyes. But with the way the Academy is set up these days (a bunch of white men), you never know! I think this film is worth seeing for its peek into the strangeness of the justice system and for its focus on Holocaust remembrance.

Did you see Denial? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions in the comments.

The next films on my list are Doctor Strange and The Girl on the Train. 

(photo credit: 1 / 2 / 3)

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