Director: Mick Jackson Starring: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott Running Time: 110 minutes
The atmosphere of Western politics in the last 12 months has quickly turned ‘timely’ into one of the most overused phrases in film criticism, with any film past or present that’s even remotely similar to current events now given the label. However with Denial depicting an Anti-Semite, who literally causes a judge to ask if his twisting of the facts regarding the Holocaust can be called lies if they’re what he genuinely believes, timely is definitely the word, to the point where the unrelenting news cycle rendered it more relevant walking out of the screening than it had been walking into it. Relevant and informative, as a film Denial is as blunt as its subject Deborah E. Lipstadt has been about the obvious incorrectness of Holocaust deniers like David Irving and the motivation behind their lies. Its message is important in the face of ‘alternate facts’, but the film struggles in getting beneath the surface of Lipstadt and Irving’s legal battle.
Adapted from History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, a book by Lipstadt herself, Denial roots itself in the perspectives of the winners of the Irving v Penguin and Lipstadt case, in which the Holocaust denying WW2 academic David Irving unsuccessfully sued Lipstadt (played by Timothy Spall and Rachel Weisz respectively) for libel. That Irving chose to do so in the UK, where the burden of proof in libel cases is on the one saying potentially libelous things, is one of many facts about the case that gets explained back and forth and sometimes more than once between characters. Lipstadt and presumably, US viewers, is baffled about the ins and outs of the British legal system, down to the separate roles of a soliciter and barrister. Playing the high-profile solicitor Anthony Julius, Andrew Scott both explains to Lipstadt the difference between the two and only a few scenes later explains to her barrister Richard Rampton that he has explained to her the difference. It approaches the level of undergrad essays at times, when the screeplay isn’t sure what to do next, it simply reiterates what it is about. Once everyone has been made absolutely sure of the nature of the suit and both parties’ legal strategies, the courtroom drama begins, with Irving acting as his own representative and the Lipstadt team essentially having to prove the Holocaust happened in defending Lipstadt’s assertion that Irving’s version of history is a lie.
As played by Spall, Irving is a suitably villanous figure. The performance involves a lot of tics and affectations, but as an intellectually dishonest man constantly performing whether it be to the judge, the press or audiences with sympathetic ears, Spall is infuriating enough to give Denial a relative degree of tension regardless of the real-life case being a matter of relatively recent record. He knows how to play someone you want to see lose. Sporting a strong New York accent, Weisz acting is similarly blunt, she’s tied down by the constant slew of reacting to things being explained to her, but she remains sympathetic, pairs well with the actors around her (particularly Wilkinson) and keeps Lipstadt as a character worth rooting for even when the story around her takes turns for the frustrating. It must be remembered that this is a true story, but there remains something eyebrow raising about the way Denial repeatedly has Lipdtadt’s lawyers tell her to “button her lip”, ultimately being vindicated in that approach. The aim is to discredit Irving legally and logically, without being overwhelmed by the emotion of the subject matter, but the way this plays out on screen still sees Weisz talked down to a lot. The stakes are high and deeply personal for both her and Julius, who have different views on how to approach the case and the bearing it might have on fellow Jewish people. The film is well-rooted and sound in its point of view, but the weight of it makes it difficult to be lifted into something more.
The direction by Mick Jackson is unfussy, two-parter television series style that only occasionally has flashes of something more. On an information-gathering excursion to Auschwitz, the director allows some of the emotion that’s played down everywhere else to come through, still, quiet wide shots replicating the eery atmosphere and respectful response the death camp brings out in visitors. The effect it has on Wilkinson and his character’s general emotional engagement to the case, is the kind of thing the film might have benefited from exploring more but only dabbles with here. The legal scenes are unspectacular, save for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hallucination about the nightmarish inside of a gas chamber by Lipstadt, jolting both in its subject and in how much more abstract it looks than the rest of the film.
Denial is aware that the only thing more horrifying than acting like the Holocause didn’t happen is the fact that it did. It’s a well-intentioned film that succeeds in getting across the information it wants, but a weak screenplay an utter disinterest in subtlelty and some strict and straightforward choices leave the story unelevated. It’s a film with a future in classrooms, and there’s a place in the world for films of that nature. The lessons are worth telling, now more than ever.(3 / 5)