I caught up with the 2016 Netflix-dispatched presentation of Denial last night, which I watched with step-son-in-law Tim. Well, not exactly. We began watching it together, but two-and-three-quarter year-old Jack demanded his Dad’s bedtime ministrations, leading to Tim’s frequent and extended departures. More accurately, I watched Denial with Jack’s father alone.
Tim and I had wanted to see Denial in the theater, but, seemingly, while the ushers were sweeping up the popcorn, the movie abruptly came and went. (I think it only possibly played for the ushers.) I had seen a preview for Denial earlier so I knew it actually existed. It just did not exist – at least theatrically – for long.
As a kid, I would measure my box office success-adjudging acumen against that of my grandfather’s brother, Uncle Manny, an erstwhile studio executive who steadfastly believed that the biggest movie hits invariably involved “F ‘n F” pictures, which stood for “fightin’ and… (decorously clearing his throat)… foolin’ around.”
With every movie I brought up, including my all-time favorite, The Court Jester, which I was certain was a blockbuster, Uncle Manny would take an extended drag from his ubiquitous plastic-tipped cigar, expel an enveloping cloud of smoke and sonorously pronounce,
“Never made a dime.”
Raising serious apprehensions about my coveted show biz aspirations.
My enthusiasm for Denial reinforces those apprehensions. Cursory research reveals that the ten million dollar-budgeted Denial amassed just north of four million dollars in ticket sales. (I should really revisit those coveted show biz aspirations. Wait, it’s over? Well then, never mind.)
What can I tell you? Bucking moviegoer reaction – or in this case movie non-goer reaction – I raise a contrarial “Thumbs Up” for the sadly under-patronized Denial.
Why wouldn’t I like it? It’s a courtroom drama – a certified bull’s eye for confirmed Law & Order enthusiasts like myself. It is intelligently written (by playwright and screenwriter Sir David Hare.) It is tastefully executed, performed to understated perfection by English actors – the one exception being the lead (also English) actor Rachel Weisz whose performance is larger because she plays an American.
Plus, Denial is untroubled by violence. Gratuitous or otherwise.
No wonder it failed at the box office.
No fightin’. No foolin’ around.
Based on historian Deborah Lipstadt’s book, “Holocaust on Trial: My Day In Court with a Holocaust Denier”, Denial chronicles the month-long, London-situated trial of an American writer sued by a man who claims the Holocaust is a hoax for “Defamation of Character.”
Like the guy actually has any. And that’s the last time I’ll take sides. As if there are always two sides. Which is the central concern of this movie. (Not to mention our current predicament.)
Here’s what Denial has working against it, beyond being a courtroom drama with no demonstrable action. (Although the lead character does occasionally go out for a run.)
Following British – but not American – judicial precepts in these matters, the defendant does not maintain the “presumption of innocence” but must instead prove that her accuser is guilty, placing the “Good Guy” on trial while the “Bad Guy” demands “justice.”
Making Denial’s narrative disorientingly topsy-turvy. (Topsy-Turvy being another movie I enjoy.)
Additionally, Deborah Lipstadt’s attorneys decide that, to maximize their chances of winning, neither she nor any Holocaust survivors will be called to testify during the trial. Resulting, for the movie, in no emotional high points, no histrionical fireworks. See: (by way of comparison) Judgment at Nuremberg.
What we get instead is an impassioned battle of arguments, strategic interplay and an outpouring of words. At one point, the defense attorney indignantly raises his voice and speaks somewhat harshly to the plaintiff, but that’s about it. His disparaging approach to his disreputable adversary is to not look him directly in the eye.
How far from “F ‘n F” pictures can you get?
Oh yeah, and the trial is argued in front of a judge, meaning no tension-heightening surveying of the jurors’ faces, wondering which way each is going to decide. The trial’s determination is instead in the hands of one stoic adjudicator, described by defendant Lipstadt as being “a character out of Masterpiece Theater.”
Denial depicts a non-fiction occurrence so they were stuck with the actual events. (Of course, not all movies care about that. In My Darling Clementine, “Doc” Holliday’s gunned down at the OK Corral. He wasn’t. He, in fact, coughed up a lung outside of Denver.)
Smartly executed. Consummately acted. Sticking to the story despite its hyper-dramatical deficiencies.
Good for me.
Bad for its investors.