There is a moment in Denial where Rachel Weisz, capped in a ludicrous wig, grills corn while wearing a tweed blazer. It’s a “blink and you miss it” flash, made all the more garish and dumbfounding by a hatchety edit job that flings the audience like a rag doll. While this scene may be one of the more inappropriately funny examples of how Denial gets so derailed from its historical importance and conventional entertainment, such instances are unfortunately not few and far between. It’s as if the filmmakers were making a screwball 90s period piece, with characterizations and design choices alike coming dangerously close to crossing the line of farce. Not only do you constantly question its taste, you often question the film’s intentions.
Centered around the British libel case against Holocaust historian Deborah E Lipstadt (Weisz) for calling Holocaust denier and Hitler sympathizer David Irving (Timothy Spall) as what he self-evidently is in her writing, Denial should be anchored at the very least by either good intentions or easy procedural entertainment. While the film does play, thanks to its digestible story beats and clarity in its good versus evil plight, it’s often watchable for the wrong reasons. One single argument between three characters is repeated twice over to the same conflict resolution. Our righteousness and agony of history is incensed by the Holocaust narrative, only to be cheaply manipulated by easy comforts. At worst, a film like Denial should just be flat or serviceable. But Denial itself is oh so bizarrely rendered.
Weisz is a bit at sea in a crusading, demonstrative character that we have seen her in often at this point. However, it’s as if someone was conspiring against her – drenching her in costumes from a high school theatre costume closet, stifling her in a dialect that comes and goes with the breeze. Spall is just missing a mustache to twirl, in the broadest idea of a ideological Nazi you could imagine. Thankfully Tom Wilkenson is ever the earthy grounding force to this film as he always proves to be.
But you can hardly blame them for defaulting to archetype with such hapless direction throughout by Mick Jackson (also of The Bodyguard and Volcano). The script by David Hare reaches for profound ideas of truth and justice, only to become pretentious at the hands of someone ill-equipped for such subtlety. One of the real crimes of the film is Jackson’s mishandling of contemporary ideas on the slippery nature of facts at the hands of nefarious forces, which Denial all but misses the mark if you’re not there to connect the threads. It’s tonal comedy without a single punchline, either blissfully unaware of its own tone deafness or erring towards something irresponsible with the material.