Tom Wilkinson

Denial

02/02/17

You’d be hard put to find a worthier subject than that depicted in Denial. It’s based around the true story of American historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who, in the late 90s, was sued for defamation by author, David Irving (a slimmed-down and eerily repellant, Timothy Spall), after she dismissed his ramblings in print as the work of  a ‘holocaust denier.’ An admitted lifelong Hitler obsessive, Irving repeatedly maintained that there was no real proof that the Nazis carried out genocide on the Jewish people during the Second World War, and that Jews had simply fabricated the idea in order to obtain reparation from the Germans after the conflict was over.

The trial is played out in London and Lipstadt is horrified to discover that, because of the peculiarities of British law, it is not for her to prove that Irving is wrong, but rather that she is correct in insisting that the Holocaust actually took place. To lose the case would be unthinkable. Her solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), is insistent that Lipstadt will not be allowed to take the stand, and neither, for that matter, will any Jewish survivors, who will run the risk of being publicly humiliated by Irving. Just to make things even more difficult, Julius decides that the case  should be deliberated not by a jury, but by a single high court Judge.

This is, of course, what actually happened, so we can hardly take umbrage with the particulars of the case – but, in terms of a screenplay, it makes it very hard for playwright David Hare to generate any sense of the actual drama. Lipstadt is forced to sit throughout the proceedings in frustrated silence while barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) conducts the case on her behalf. The result is, I’m afraid, a curiously unaffecting film, one that fails to engage an audience as much as it needs to. Even the scenes shot in modern day Auschwitz seem somehow perfunctory and lacking in emotional depth. And of course, since we all know the outcome of the case, there’s no real suspense here, either.

This is a shame because on nearly every other level the film is nicely done. There are strong performances from an excellent cast, it is decently shot and Irving’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman is cleverly reenacted. But I have to say, worthy though the subject undoubtedly is, this doesn’t have the kind of impact it could.

3.6 stars 

Philip Caveney

Snowden

14/12/16

To some, Edward Snowden is a menace, a man who endangered the security of the USA. To others, he is an unsung hero, somebody who sacrificed his career in order to tell the truth about the ways in which the CIA was covertly spying on everyday citizens. (Trust me, this film will almost certainly have you sticking a plaster over the camera on your laptop). It’s perhaps no great surprise to learn that Oliver Stone, one of America’s most infamous liberals,  belongs firmly  in the latter category; and as portrayed by Joseph Gordon Levitt, Snowden is a decent man, a gifted computer nerd who loves his country, and becomes increasingly dismayed by the lengths that the organisation he works for is prepared to go to in order to ‘preserve the nation’s security.’

Stone has been off form for some years now. It’s a very long time since he dazzled us with the likes of Salvador and JFK – and the unmitigated disaster that was Alexander the Great is perhaps best brushed under the Persian carpet. Here, he’s on much more confident form, ably assisted by a measured central  performance by Gordon-Levitt and a nicely Machiavellian turn from Rhys Ifans as shady wheeler-dealer, Corbin O Brian. The likes of Nicholas Cage and Timothy Olyphant pop up in cameo roles, while Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto portray the trio of journalists who help Snowden break the story that sends him into exile.

It’s a prescient story and an important one. Stone manages to pull off an inspired trick by having the real Edward Snowden portray himself in the film’s closing section. While this may not be up there with his finest efforts, this is definitely Stone’s best work in quite a while.

Here’s hoping that the powers that be will eventually be shamed into giving Edward Snowden the pardon he so evidently deserves.

 

4.2 stars
Philip Caveney

Selma

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08/02/15

Selma chronicles the turbulent three month period in 1965, when Dr Martin Luther King led the protest to try and obtain equal voting rights for black people in the Southern states of America. Even though that right had already been officially granted, the powers that be had conspired to ensure that it was one that would never be claimed, so King set out to lead a series of ‘peaceful’ marches from the town of Selma, Alabama to the capital city, Montgomery. What happened next is a matter of history. The racist police and redneck citizenry enacted violent and bloody opposition to the event, beating and in some cases murdering the marchers with apparent impunity.

Make no mistake, this is an important film. It examines one of the most shameful periods in civil rights history and largely gets its message across. But it’s also a curiously muted affair, a consequence perhaps of its 12A certificate, something which demands that the more distressing scenes are somewhat airbrushed. Curiously too, the film makers were denied the use of any of King’s legendary speeches, mainly because the intellectual property rights are tightly controlled by his children and they wouldn’t allow the use of them here (oddly though, they had no problem licensing the “I have a dream’ speech to a French telephone company for an ‘undisclosed sum.’ Go figure.) This meant that screenwriter Paul Webb had the unenviable task of writing some original speeches for one of the greatest orators in history.

Much wrath has been incurred over recent weeks by David Oyelowo’s supposed snub by the Oscar and BAFTA panels. Many have suggested that his performance was overlooked simply because of his race. The truth is that he does offer a solid, understated portrayal of MLK, one that is full of dignity and one that captures the man’s distinctive voice patterns with remarkable alacrity, but at the same time, it doesn’t really have the stature (or the histrionics) expected of an Oscar contender. There are other solid performances on offer here too. Tom Wilkinson shines as Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth perfectly nails the unpleasant, racist demeanour of Governor George Wallace. And yet the events are related at a funereal pace and there are too many scenes of King sitting in darkened rooms, brooding over his next move.

A good film then, though perhaps not a great one – but at the same time, a film that absolutely demands to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. I was warned to expect to shed tears for this and though a notorious ‘weeper’ that didn’t actually happen. But a palpable sense of shame did remain with me, the shame that in my own lifetime, events like this were ever allowed to happen. It also helped me to appreciate the immense courage of all those people who put their lives on the line in the name of civil rights.

4 stars

Philip Caveney