An Alternative to Facts


DENIAL is something we opted to watch on BAFTA screener when something else didn’t grip us (not fair to talk about the non-gripper since we didn’t finish it). We knew DENIAL would offer a good STORY, which is what we craved, and so it did.

What has Mick Jackson been doing? I know his name from L.A. STORY, which was a while ago. He’s been on TV, I see. Well, I kind of know what he’s doing here — he’s been brought in to give it a touch of cinema. It’s a BBC film, see, and written by David Hare — very intelligently written as far as the issues are concerned, occasionally clumsy as it draws in bit players to comment on the issues. But compared to much recent exposition, very decently done.

(We attempted a screener of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN once and were appalled at the leaden way characters kept explaining things to each other that they both clearly already knew. I spoofed this with the line, “As you know, I’m your father,” and after ten minutes we’d almost convinced ourselves this was a genuine bit of dialogue.)


The trouble is, a writer like Hare, schooled in the theatre, leaves no room for cinema or “cinema” — he gives you strong dramatic scenes of people talking to each other. A master of such stuff — and it would be lovely to see Otto Preminger getting to grips with this material — can make cinema out of just such scenes. There’s nothing wrong with Jackson’s handling of them, and he renders London in photogenic, grey, wet panoramas. Lots of frosty, foggy, atmospheric shots of Auschwitz too. It’s the bursts of attention-getting technique applied to the Holocaust that seemed a bit egregious. I’ll allow the barely audible sound of screams heard as our characters stand on the roof of a former gas chamber, since I allowed the barely audible sound of cheering in the deserted Nazi Olympic stadium in THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM — the coincidence is so striking, I have to embrace it. But the sudden horror movie plunge into a photograph of a gas chamber window, which becomes live-action and filled with distressed, clawing figures who look like ZOMBIES — that was bad, both because it belonged in a different film, and because any time a filmmaker uses such historical events to show off, I get repulsed.


But that is, to be fair, one tiny moment in an otherwise strong, sensitively handled drama. Rachel Weisz, who made an unconvincing librarian in THE MUMMY and AGORA, makes a convincing historian here and her accent is enjoyable to listen to. EVERYONE is doing an accent, except Tom Wilkinson, who refuses to make any compromises in the direction of being Scottish. Good for him, I say, he has the right idea. Wilkinson brings the entertainment, as does Andrew Scott as his fellow lawyer (I won’t get into the whole barrister/solicitor thing) — Scott annoyed us no end in Sherlock (he’s Moriarty — we enjoyed the show but not him) but it turns out to have been to a large extent the fault of the writing. He uses many of the same tics here, but they don’t come off as tics: he has a sort of flip, aggressive way of jumping in with a line and cutting it off short, which is helpful as he’s essentially playing antagonist to a woman who wants to talk about things. One of those Sherlock writers is here too, Mark Gatiss playing Polish — and he’s really excellent, very restrained, he makes you forget the oddness of that casting (are there no Poles in Britain? To read the tabloids, not that we do, one would think there was nothing but.)

Holocaust denier David Irving is played by Timothy Spall, and just as Weiss is technically too cute to play Deborah Lipstadt, who should look like an ordinary person, Spall is not handsome enough to play Irving, who looks like the portrait of Dorian Gray if Gray were a big rugby-playing type — traces of handsomeness in a face grown gross and harsh and corrupt. Spall has actually lost a shit-ton of fat (by the looks of things, siphoning it off into John Sessions) and now looks kind of like Tim Roth wearing Timothy Spall’s abandoned skin, something I have no doubt Roth would do, given the chance.

But these observations ultimately don’t matter — you get used to the strange accents emanating from Weiss and Spall (and everyone else) and to the fact that they’re imperfect embodiments of the personages they represent, because the actual ACTING is what counts (along with the writing, of course) and it’s very good. And it all manages to express a point that shouldn’t need to be expressed, with enough subtleties around the edges (for instance, why one shouldn’t put survivors in the witness stand in a case like this) which are far from obvious and fascinating to hear argued so well. When Scott tells Weiss that he’s not going to let her testify, I was surprised and impressed and waited for the movie to change its mind and give her a BAFTA-winning speech from the box, but it never came. Almost uniquely in a film centred on a female protagonist, her job is to remain silent, to bear witness, to not debate a man who doesn’t deserve to be debated. The film’s courage in sticking to this principle is praiseworthy.


10 Responses to “An Alternative to Facts”

  1. I agree with all your views on this solid, intelligent film. It’s not without simplifications and embellishments – for instance, the real Lipstadt wasn’t caught off guard by the no-testimony strategy, since she and Julius had worked it out before she came to London – but the essential traits of the trial and the people involved are accurately depicted, and all the actors are a pleasure to watch.

  2. Yes, I was pretty sure the conflict between client and representatives was a bit trumped up, “for dra-mat-ic pur-poses” as Foreign Man says in Man in the Moon, but it wasn’t a major blemish. They could just as easily had Lipstadt taking the opposite view (which would be consistent with her stated opinions at the book reading Q&a) over her lawyers’ objections — it was just a way to lay out the arguments engagingly.

  3. Mark Fuller Says:

    I’m a huge fan of Timothy Spall but I fear he is disastrously miscast here….the real Irving had a patrician demeanour and an absolute unwaverable certainty in his belief that he was correct. Spall has a bewildered air….Irving was never that. I cant imagine who could have been cast though….Branagh ???

  4. Oh I rather liked Spall. Hus best perf. is still in Chereau’s “Intimacy.” Wilkinson is always Wilkinson — be it here or “Michael Clayton” or “Wilde” or “The Ghost Writer.” Superb. He’s particularly good in the scenes where he revisits the death camp.

    “Denial” is most refreshing in the era of “alternative facts.”

    Not to mention “two sides.”


  5. “strong dramatic scenes of people talking to each other”

    It’s always been the problem with British films: directors think that all they need do is get a good script and good actors to speak it and point the camera at them.

  6. I’m not blaming Mick Jackson here — he’s signed on to do a film whose script was probably largely settled already. He films the places beautifully and the faces efficiently. But he’s not Hitchcock, who could dramatise talk by “filming a play from the inside.”

    Spall’s is a fine performance, it’s just not Irving. He does what good actors usually do — he humanizes. Branagh might have worked well, though I’ve never found him as authoritative as he thinks he is.

  7. I just hope someone scripts a biopic of Christopher Hitchens before Spall gets too old.

  8. But he’s now too thin! (And baggy.) John Sessions might be more like it.

    Roger Allam made a fantastic fascist Hitchens-alike in V For Vendetta.

  9. I always thought David Cann would make a great Irving – a weird thought to have for so long I suppose, but I’ve always thought he was superb. He’s probably still best known as the doctor in Blue Jam, or for this:

  10. Oh, he’s amazing. Great for anything with a factual quality because his face just doesn’t seem to belong to drama, and he can do “real” extremely well. What a great movie that would have been! But you’d need to cast everyone else the same way.

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