One of the great disappointments in the art of film occurs when a great story, or even an important and engaging one, becomes a film that is just “fine.” If the film were a dud, there might be the chance that a good film would ultimately be made of the topic. If a great film were made out of a great story, that’s a double success. But when a great story becomes an OK film, that’s a great story trapped. Such is the case with Denial, a well-made, dramatic story on Holocaust denial that lacks the necessary passion its elements and storyline demand.
Denial has all the necessary ingredients for greatness, or for at least being better than it is. The director is Mick Jackson, who did a fine job with HBO’s Temple Grandin and has a string of successful television work. The script is by David Hare (The Reader and The Hours). Even stronger is the cast: the inestimable and radiant Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott (unforgettable as Moriarty on the BBC Sherlock series), Mark Gatiss, co-creator of that same series as well as the actor who plays Mycroft Holmes on the same series), and Will Attenborough, grandson of legendary Richard.
The plot involves a lawsuit from a British Holocaust denier (Spall) against an American professor and writer (Weisz) who is accused of libel because she has publicly called him out on the denial. That’s the plot. The story, however, is full of great possibilities but unexplored resonances. This is a story about truth, about perception, about history, about the British legal system, about the differences between America and American ways and Britain and British ways. It’s about an occasionally obnoxious but sympathetic New Yorker (spoiler alert) who must, frustratingly, keep her mouth shut during a trial that seems backwards to her. So many buried subtopics; so few actually excavated.
The tone is cool and surprisingly unemotional, considering the topics the story addresses. There are a few moments that bring the tragic historical events to near-life, and there is the occasional satisfying clash among the two legal counsels (Wilkinson and Scott) and their barely containable client (Weisz). But the spark, the angst, the fiery anger—they’re all missing.
Perhaps it’s because the director has a TV background that doesn’t translate well to feature films. Or perhaps he is simply more workmanlike than expressive. One important element that keeps things less interesting than questioning is the lead casting. I love Rachel Weisz, and she is almost always better than her material, even if the material is great. But this British actress, in spite of her good work with the American/New Yawk accent, is still one of the Brits acting on that screen. Why not cast an American and let the nationalist tensions be more obvious? Yes, it’s a BBC production, but it seems a lost opportunity, which is hard to say when one is speaking of Ms. Weisz.
Here’s a thought: This film seemed to work well for the British, who nominated it for Outstanding Film of the Year. Over here it made peanuts. Let’s forget this was made, and why doesn’t some passionate director try it again (perhaps making more of the fish-out-of-water elements, and allowing the American to be played by an American, or at least not a British legend), draw more life out of the many plot points and tensions, subtly highlight the important philosophical suggestions to get many an energetic conversation started, and make it into the rip-roaring drama it was meant to be.
In the meantime, it’s still worth seeing. As I said—a great story….