Within moments of The Mercy’s gadget market beginnings, it becomes clear that there is a definite fascination with what we perceive as “truth”. As liberating as the truth can be, it is also a particularly cruel force. So cruel that many people will do anything they can to avoid facing it, preferring their own fantasies to placate that nagging worry in the backs of their minds. Many a filmmaker have made bank on the idea of the fantasy versus stone-cold reality, like the cinematic illusions of Christopher Nolan or the dreamwalking of David Lynch. Under the eye of director James Marsh (Man On Wire, The Theory Of Everything) and in the hands of writer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, Side Effects), there is no such trickery. Whatever illusions or dreams they cast for the audience exist solely in the head of a man who thought he could do what no-one else had done before.
As lively as Colin Firth is in the main role, showing his aptitude for that oh-so-British stiff upper lip, his is not the role of the comedic foil. Instead, his role is one of soul-crushing tragedy. Where films like USSR’s Race Of The Century turned this real-life story into one of societal critique, this aims closer to the personal and hubristic to show someone in an increasingly impossible situation. A situation where our lead has no-one to truly blame but himself, failing to see just how far his ambitions had pushed him until almost everything he had depended on his success. It takes the familiar underdog tone of quite a few biopics of late and highlights a rather depressing truth: sometimes, the underdog never even gets past its leash.
Well, “failing to see” might be a bit harsh. Considering how much he puts of himself and his livelihood into this venture around the world, maybe he’s just looking for an escape. Maybe he’s just trying to make his mark in a world where every point on the map has already been plotted. Or maybe he’s just someone who got in way over his head and ended up having to pay the price for it. Whatever the ultimate reason, the film doesn’t cast aspersions on Donald Crowhurst.
Through Burns’ down-to-earth scripting, Marsh’s familiarity with bringing the real world to the big screen, Éric Gautier’s queasy camera work and anxious string sections courtesy of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario), we are given a door into the man’s head. One full of self-doubt, regret, increasing pressure and a reluctance to admit that everything has gone wrong. The reality behind every frame on the screen manifests as not only an uncompromising look at how our own expectations can spell our doom, but also a refreshingly honest diversion from the usual wispiness that hovers over a lot of modern biopics. It refrains from romanticising Crowhurst’s mission, instead showing an admission that the hopeless dreamer archetype that Hollywood loves to fetishise has a dark underbelly. The title is a lie; the truth has no mercy.
In Denial, Professor of Holocaust Studies Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) finds herself pitted against Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) when he sues her for libel. For director Mick Jackson, the film's themes of truth in the face of ideological lies are even more relevant today.
After his cousin and benefactor, Ambrose, dies in Italy, young Philip (Sam Claflin) is quite put out at the prospect of his widow, the titular Rachel (Rachel Weisz) coming to stay at the Cornwall manor he is now de facto lord over. He soon changes his tune because, well, it’s Rachel Weisz, but questions still hang over Ambrose’s death. Did he die of a brain tumour, as the death certificate states, or was he slowly poisoned by Rachel as his fevered letters suggest? Add to that the question of inheritance, with the now-besotted Philip determining to hand over Ambrose’s estate to the bereaved Rachel, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a delirious post-Gothic melodrama.
The thing is, you don’t just pile those ingredients up, you have to cook them and, to push the metaphor about as far as it will go, writer and director Roger Michell is a poor chef. In adapting Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 potboiler of the same name, Michell forgoes the essential element in transposing this kind of thing to the screen for a modern audience: tonal control. All those repressed desires and simmering tensions beneath the starched collars, the stolen glances across candlelit drawing rooms, start to seem pretty silly if they’re not handled deftly. And My Cousin Rachel is a very silly film. Sadly, it’s almost certain it doesn’t mean to be.
Poor Sam Claflin does what he can with the character of Philip, a spoilt man-baby who is either flouncing about being put out that Rachel is inserting herself into his No Girls Allowed country clubhouse, or else thirstily trying to insert himself in her once he gets a good look at her. His arc is unbelievably cartoonish, going from pining for the blatantly homoerotic relationship with his uncle in the opening scenes (a thread which is never picked up on again), to a willfully reckless hound dog in the back end, willing to throw everything away for the affections of his widowed house guest. It’s a path that might be convincingly followed on the page, but seems to be beyond the capabilities of any involved to evoke onscreen.
The ever-capable Weisz fares much better, but we are deliberately kept ignorant of her interior life, revelations about her actions and motives being key to the film’s climax. Of course, that means we’re left with Philip as our POV character, which becomes a case of the blind leading the bored. Still, we’re basically asked to stare at Weisz for long stretches of time to try and parse her intentions, and if that’s your thing, there’ll be something to enjoy here.
What’s particularly frustrating about My Cousin Rachel is the sense that there’s a good film to be mined from this material. The basic bones of the narrative take some of the more problematic elements of Gothic and Victorian literature – an uneasy sense of place, a mistrust of female sexuality and power, xenophobia bordering on outright racism, and some funny ideas about keeping it all in the family – and subverts a lot of it, but Michell fails to emphasise the right beats in a way that makes those themes hit home. What we’re left with is some really nice cinematography by Mike Eley (there are killer compositions here, to be fair), an increasingly annoying musical cue by Rael Jones (an earworm you’ll want to poison), and talented performers struggling to do their best.
Incidentally, it’s been 65 years between cinematic adaptations of My Cousin Rachel. Could be there’s a good reason for that.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between our current social climate and the circumstances of Mick Jackson’s superb Denial; it is now more timely in this post-truth climate than possibly any of the cast and crew likely realised whilst making it. The story centres around the Irving v Penguin Books Ltd trial, which saw David Irving (Timothy Spall), a prominent British historian and Holocaust denier, sue Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a Holocaust and Jewish historian, for libel (publishing a false statement to tarnish another’s reputation) over her novel Denying the Holocaust in the late ‘90s. Deborah, the heroin of this story, decides to fight him in court, meaning they must not only prove that David Irving is a liar, but that the holocaust did, indeed, happen.
Throughout the film, Irving refers to the case as a modern David and Goliath story, Irving being David in his allusion as he represents himself, but it is perhaps more fitting to see the real David and Goliath battle between truth and lies. Because the case falls under the British courts, it turns out that Lipstadt is guilty until proven innocent, so she is left with two options: settle with Irving outside of court, legitimising his claims, or fight him. Knowing the severity of what legitimising a holocaust denier would mean, she chooses to fight.
One of the most spectacular aspects of the film are the court hearings as they are simultaneously almost unbelievable and yet lifted, verbatim, from the records. Timothy Spall and Rachel Weisz shine in their respective roles, Spall highlighting the seductive and manipulative quality of many pathological liars and Weisz delving into Lipstadt’s inner struggles during the case – and she has plenty to struggle with throughout the film. Beyond the weight of the legitimacy of the Holocaust resting upon her shoulders, her legal team decide that putting Holocaust survivors on the stand, and giving Irving free will to interrogate and delegitimise their traumas would be unethical. For Lipstadt, though, it means those who suffered won’t have a voice.
A particularly stirring moment comes when Lipstadt goes with her barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) to Auschwitz. It is the focal point of the case, because it was the heart of the Jewish liquidation in WWII. Lipstadt, being Jewish, is brought to tears when she stands upon the demolished roof of a gas chamber. Her barrister, however, is clinical. He wants the facts so they can win. At dinner, they clash heads. She calls him heartless and he says has to find the facts or Irving wins. This is the real battle of Denial. Even though you may sometimes feel you are one-hundred-percent on the side of right, you have to be able to back that up, to argue your point. Only then can you stand tall. This is the trouble for Lipstadt and so many of us in our contemporary times. Even though what we believe may feel true, or downright obvious, we must have the proof to back up what we believe. It’s a dilemma the film deals with brilliantly throughout.
But that also leads to the only criticism – the film suggests that, no matter what the outcome of the trial, Irving will always believe what he preaches. It is entrenched in his bones. And it is easy to understand where dogmatism comes from, but how people like Irving come to exist in the first place is less clear. The film does not seem interested in that question and Irving is ultimately mitigated to the role of an outlier to general society, and the film does little to develop or understand Irving and that remains a wasted opportunity in an otherwise great film.