-A frustratingly unfocused legal drama and a slice of life in rural Montana.
It should be the prerogative of any film that takes on a certain subject matter to pay attention to the processes and customs of that subject matter. Denial, on its surface, may seem like an inspirational movie about taking down the Holocaust denier by embarrassing him and his distorted worldview. If that were the case, and the movie focused more on the feeling associated with holding such an offensive viewpoint, this film would be a special indie drama that I would whole-heartedly recommend. However, that’s not the point, as the movie instead focuses on the legal battle about libel that ensues between two historians in an effort to try to remain objective about the material. Because of this, the result, in a movie shrouded in procedure instead of feeling, is sloppy, overshooting an attempt to remain even-handed by creating an experience that begins to sink under some of its own plot inconsistencies.
Our feature subject is a college professor and historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) who calls out a Holocaust denier in one of her books in a seemingly shrewd attempt to make herself seem more expressive about the material. The problem is that this denier is David Irving (Timothy Spall), a brilliant tactical historian who takes serious offense to Lipstadt’s treatment of his work in her book. He decides to show up at one of her speeches to engage in a hotly contested debate, but when she refuses, he takes legal action against her, alleging libel as his cause of action.
The film stresses this difference: in the UK, the burden of proof is on the defendant, rather than the plaintiff/accuser, to prove that their work did not rise to the standard of libeling the other party. His complaint against her states personal attacks and accusing him of being a Holocaust denier.
So, the film takes us through the process of preparing Deborah’s defense, and then through the weeks of actual trial for this matter, which became a pretty high profile case. The way that this was handled really bothered me, because instead of focusing on what he was actually accusing her of, the movie instead shifts to the defense proving that what he states in his book is incorrect. The entire time, I was thinking that he did state incorrect things in his book, but that doesn’t mean that she didn’t insult him or that he isn’t just exactly what his complaint addresses: a Holocaust denier. The movie then gives the Judge a chance at a sidebar before the decision is rendered, where he states “what if he just believed the things he was saying?” We weren’t addressing the factual adequacy of his work, we were addressing the libel, remember? He does deny the Holocaust. That’s the whole point of his work.
I realize that the suit ended up being more about the accuracy of his work and whether or not he manipulated primary sources to lie in his books, and the findings were pretty simple. He did. However, that’s not the path that the film leads us down, so a ton of this movie’s scenes felt so unnecessary because they were outside of the parameters that the plot set for us. I didn’t really become informed about this entire lawsuit until I read about it online after. The film did a really poor job focusing on the relevancy of certain facts and what the actual scope of the investigation was.
Instead, we got a movie about Deborah’s feelings being hurt. She was embarrassed that David Irving can talk circles around her in person, even if she’s the author who is actually on the correct side of history. Then, we see her fight tooth and nail against the legal team she employs because they don’t want victims’ or Deborah’s testimony. They want to pick apart the accuracy of Irving’s work. So when Deborah yells at the lawyers and gets emotional, it makes her character seem impeccably weak. She refuses to understand what they’re trying to do, and frankly, I was on the side of the legal team throughout the film’s entire run-time, because Rachel Weisz’s performance of Deborah makes her seem like a complete moron (sorry). Of course we don’t want her to testify. She does the thing where she refuses to make valid points but instead just gets angry and emotional. Her character is largely reprehensible, and so is Irving. It’s just that Irving is smarter.
Spall and Wilkinson (her attorney), both dramatically acclaimed actors, do excellent work in this film. There are no complaints from me about the actual substance of the performances or drama. The film has high stakes, nice tension, and a good dramatic currency that could have paid off with an excellent third act. In reality, we just hate our protagonist so much that we disengage.
I also just want to say that my harshness about the issues with this movie is in no way trying to state that I side or sided with David Irving. The conservative propaganda that is incited by his falseness is worse than anything we could see today on a FOX News or MSNBC. To deny the Holocaust and condone Hitler’s (and his armada of political subsidiaries’) actions is to insult the entirety of Western civilization. It’s just that the film made it about the lawsuit and wanted us to sympathize with the incessant whining of the Weisz character. If she was just willing to put aside her biases and see the actual purview of the court proceeding, she would be able to be honest with herself about why she shouldn’t get questioned by the much more charismatic and centered Irving. If we’re talking about whether or not she insulted him with her writing, we don’t need Holocaust victims to testify. We are comparing apples and oranges. So, for a movie to have me begin to show sympathy for the Holocaust denier shows the absolute failure of this film to either twist the facts to make our side dramatically prudent or reign in the annoyance of the protagonist to make her more understanding.
Although it puts the performances and drama in the right place often enough, I just can’t give a positive score to a film that I hated, even if it’s not the most objective criticism in the world.
Director: Mick Jackson (L.A. Story, Volcano, The Bodyguard)
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, and Hilton McRae
RT Score: 79%
Sometimes, a film will forego an over-plot to give us a little less than a true three act structure, deviating from the standard in a way that showcases the director’s vision in a more unique way. Among these deviations, or at least the most famous, is what I like to call the “slice of life” modicum, a window into the lives of a character or characters to put the audience in that environment fully. Our characters’ conflicts in Certain Women are not really the reason why the film remains interesting despite a very gloomy and uneventful run-time. It’s more that we’re being exposed to a type of life that we don’t know. Director Kelly Reichardt may have watched Alexander Payne’s excellent Nebraska, and thought, “hey, I can do that.”
Our three acts are actually divided into three short stories, each depicting the life of a rural woman in Montana, and how she traverses existence in a less-than-progressive place. As we float in and out of these characters’ lives, the theme becomes clear over some occasional background noise of conflict that these people have. Each of them, in one way or another, are hampered by their gender in a subtle, backhanded way. Rather than make this a movie about crucifying “sexist America;” it instead plays the gender gap in an understated way, like a headache that never quite goes away that has hindered opportunities or relationships for these people one way or the other. It’s a nice, subtle way for Reichardt to get her point across, without adding to the rather provocative hammer that is film-festival liberalism. There’s plenty of room for more ham-fisted storytelling by less qualified directors.
First is Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a tort attorney in Montana who has been unable to convince her injured client (Jared Harris) that by accepting a prior settlement, he has relieved his negligent employer of any additional legal duty to him. He appears to have a small amount of brain damage that affects his vision, so after eight months of him not taking no for an answer, she takes him to get a second opinion from a male attorney, who he listens to straightaway. A small line about the credibility gap between her and the other attorney is all we need to know that Laura has this issue with her career field. A subsequent (and poorly paced/directed) hostage scene involving the client after he goes postal is barely important, other than a few additional insights into how her being a woman affects her day-to-day life.
Second is Gina (Michelle Williams), a 40-ish woman who is in the process of building her home from the ground up with her husband Ryan (James LeGros). She feels frustrated by Ryan undermining her on both parenting, and with a rather dishonest quest of the two of them trying to convince the senile Albert (Rene Auberjonois) to sell them some discarded sandstone that he has on his property. Albert, although confused, really only responds to Ryan, where Gina is actually the developer between the two, and Ryan works for her. Sensing the discomfort, Ryan tells their daughter to “be nice to Mom today.”
Third is Jamie (Lily Gladstone), the truly rural member of the three, who works a seasonal position taking care of/grooming a stable of horses in the mountains. Her days really blend together with extreme similarity, painfully alone in the snow and ice everyday. One day, while driving, she sees a procession of cars pull into the local high school, where she wanders into an educational law class taught by Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). Despite no interest in the subject matter, the two form an awkward friendship, where they head to the local diner and eat together after every class. The commute for Beth is brutal, four hours to and from her home in the city, where she works as a practicing attorney. The nature of their relationship remains ambiguous enough, but it’s obvious that Jamie has feelings for Beth.
The stories barely intersect. There’s an affair that connects two characters, or the legal backdrop of the movie because of two of our characters’ profession. Without any major spoilers, just know that the intersections don’t matter. This is, again, more about just seeing to these lives for a two hour period.
The editing is fine, albeit occasionally sloppy between stories, but the film has its own visual flair and is shot nicely, capturing the gorgeous backdrop of Montana mountain ranges and plains. All of the performances are subdued, but solid, and there’s true tension in the way that these characters go through these small-scale crises that each plot section focuses on. The problem really lies with the pacing in that there isn’t really a true dose of excitement in this film. Even the actual character drama and dialogue is just a bit flat, so it never rises to being a masterpiece level movie that could excuse its lack of plot structure. It’s a nice experiment, though, and I liked it more as I thought about it more.
Certain Women (2016)
Director: Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves, River of Grass, Old Joy, Meek’s Cutoff)
Starring: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart, and Jared Harris
RT Score: 89%