Seeing a mediocre movie can be a weird experience. You’re never enthralled or invested in it like a great movie, you’re never offended or enraged at it like a terrible movie and you’re never able to ironically enjoy it as much as the so-bad-it’s-good movie.
Mediocre movies fade out of your memory after blankly staring at the screen for two hours, leaving no impression other than the possible regret of wasting $10. Unlike true abominations, you don’t actively try to repress the memory of mediocre movies; they forget themselves for you.
After seeing director Mick Jackson’s “Denial,” I think, at long last, I’ve found something that I thought was never possible. I’ve finally discovered the most mediocre film of all time.
On a scale from Trevor Wall’s animated film “Norm of the North” being the worst and Irvin Kershner’s “The Empire Strikes Back” being the best, “Denial” sits feebly between the two, setting a benchmark for what true mediocrity is.
If that sounds like low praise, it sort of is. But it’s actually impressive how in such a short span of time, a film can have such fascinating content with such incredibly boring characters.
Remarkably unremarkable, “Denial” is more of a long and repetitive episode of a courtroom drama like “Law & Order” than a two-hour film.
The film opens by introducing Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a Jewish historian and professor at Emory University. While publicly speaking about her new book on the Holocaust, Lipstadt is confronted by prominent Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall), asking for a debate. She refuses the challenge, but not before Irving promises $1,000 to anyone who can prove that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz.
Lipstadt avoids contact with Irving until she learns that he has sued her and her publisher for libel.
The lawsuit comes with a twist: Lipstadt was sued in the United Kingdom, Irving’s native country, where the law dictates that the defendant must prove their innocence against their charge.
Aided by top legal minds Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), Lipstadt fights against Irving, who represents himself. The conflict puts the authenticity of the Holocaust on trial.
There are plenty of docudramas like Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” that have a wealth of information to share on a subject that isn’t well known. “Denial” is no exception to this trend.
The film touches on Jewish attitudes toward the Holocaust along with the differences between American and British law. It’s interesting how during the case some Jews wanted to leave the memory of the Holocaust in the past and move on, pleading with Lipstadt to settle with Irving, while some survivors wanted to testify in the case.
Being able to see Lipstadt’s legal team plan their attack on Irving is also interesting. Watching the clash between emotional knee-jerk reactions to Irving’s claims and the cool logic of Julius’ plans against him offer a dynamic of conflicting emotions.
With so many moving parts, it feels like “Denial” could have done the topic more justice as a documentary rather than a two-hour courtroom drama.
Though the movie is more of an educational experience, at times it seems that “Denial” had some potential to feel like a real film. The best scene is when Lipstadt and her legal team travel to Auschwitz to gather evidence for the systematic killings that took place there.
Being Jewish herself, the visit is especially difficult for Lipstadt, with the somber atmosphere accentuated by the falling snow. With the majority of the film focusing on courtroom antics and legal planning, this scene is the only one that has any soul in it.
The only thing that detracts from the scene is a zoom-in on a drop of water dripping from a fence like a tear while she mourns. Why try to ruin the immersion of a decent scene with melodramatic garbage like that?
After the Auschwitz scene, the film takes an interesting (but not in a good way) turn in its portrayal of Lipstadt.
Even though Weisz has first billing, she takes a confusing backseat to the rest of the action. I say “action” in the loosest sense possible, since the last half of the film takes place almost exclusively in the courtroom.
In a film that’s supposed to be about her case and struggle, Lipstadt instead takes on the most passive role as a main character I’ve ever seen. Her legal team seems to replace her as the main character.
There’s very little to like about her other than she’s on the right side of the fight and Irving’s a jerk; it’s perhaps the worst and most manipulative reason to like a character. The only thing Lipstadt accomplishes during the court proceedings is sitting and complaining to Julius for not letting her or the Holocaust survivors testify.
Way to go, girl!
The whole of “Denial” feels unsatisfying to watch from beginning to end. Not bad, not good, but completely free of any true tension.
That’s certainly to be expected, as Irving comes off as a clown rather than a lawyer and doesn’t have much of a case. There’s no sense of accomplishment like that in “Spotlight,” where the reporters have to work their way through different obstacles and struggle with relationships.
Rather than struggling, the legal team in “Denial” puts in much better arguments than Irving without really trying too hard. For being a courtroom drama, there’s not much to go around.
During one of the last courtroom scenes, Lipstadt asks perhaps the most philosophical question to ever leave someone’s lips: “What the f— just happened?”
Good question, Deborah. Those were my exact thoughts leaving the theater. I just saw one of the most informative films in quite a while, packaged together with some of the least compelling narrative and character aspects I’ve seen.
Those words resonate with me. What did just happen to create the most mediocre thing in existence?