Starring: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson
Director: Mick Jackson
Running Time: 110 mins
Synopsis: Based on the real life High Court battle between author Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) and outspoken historian David Irving (Spall). Claiming she defamed him due to his denial of the Holocaust atrocities. However due to the eccentricities of the British justice system, it is down to her to prove the Holocaust happened, not for him to prove it did.
In trying to encapsulate some of the true life horrors of our history, particularly ones as grand and horrific as slavery or the Holocaust, it can be all too easy to sensationalise. Eliciting tears it may do but it all too often feels like shameless manipulation rather than a truly nuanced depiction. The ending of Schindler’s List comes to mind, immensely powerful it may be but it couldn’t help but feel like a movie moment than an honest to god grounded piece of storytelling. Denial fortunately tackles its very difficult subject with simplicity, care and a bevy of fine performances.
In tackling the tragedy of the Holocaust in the context of a court case Denial reveals a lot more than simply an observation of the sheer horror of the events in WW2. Deborah Lipstadt is a notable debunker of Holocaust debunkers, using her fierce intellect and impassioned belief as a Jew herself, she saves most of her bile though for British historian David Irving. An outspoken bigoted racist who just so happens to be rather popular in some circles (think neo-Nazi) he sees her quite deserved attacks on his character as a defamation of his name, his standing in the historical community and as a human being with free speech. However in bringing this case before a British court, which requires the accused party to defend themselves in a defamation case rather than the other way round, Deborah has to fight for her own reputation and in fact the millions of Jews who lost their lives in a system she doesn’t understand.
This confusion makes for some entertaining and darkly humorous asides, as you can imagine with a film dealing with this subject matter laughs are not on the menu. However the film does frequently over-egg the whole fish out of water thing. Deborah has to repeatedly have things explained to her, and thus the audience too. It is a slightly clunky device, only salvaged by the hugely capable cast as its core. Andrew Scott bears the brunt of the exposition as Deborah’s key lawyer. Scott laces it all, though, with a wonderfully sardonic cynicism. His wry put downs and odd cadence giving a measure of lightness to proceedings, although he is very much capable of incandescent outbursts at Deborah’s lack of decorum around the English way of things.
In that regard Rachel Weisz has a difficult role here. She plays the barely contained emotional indignation of all these events with a moving vulnerability. Her turmoil over giving a voice to those who survived, represented here by one solitary survivor in a move that confounds more than emotes (surely other survivors would have been vocal in this infamous case), against the defences decision to focus solely on Irving’s beliefs is delicately played. But she does have a tendency to wax on far too much. After her fourth or fifth moment of stubborn outbursts it all becomes a little tiring. Weisz plays it with conviction, alas she is the least interesting character here.
The more interesting roles belong to Spall and Wilkinson. Spall is a revelation here. Playing someone truly vile and monstrous it is a thoroughly captivating performance. Full of spit and hatred, what makes him so gripping is the fact that he genuinely believes in all the bile he spills. Some of the words he comes out with are shockingly painful to hear. Physically he is a beacon of terror, shark like eyes full of darkness that chills you to the bone. Only in conversation do his eyes light up with the delight of being able to fire out his racist ideologies, then as soon as he stops his eyes roll over black. It is too niche for Oscar to take note, but it is one of his finest performances.
Tom Wilkinson provides the real meat on the opposing team. Driven and focused on winning despite how soulless it may make him appear. A restrained and sensitive visit to Auschwitz seems to affect him on a personal level but the depths of this are not revealed until later on. As the case continues and the passionate pleas of Deborah weigh on him, Wilkinson slowly reveals hidden layers of conflict that being a barrister places on his conscious. Not to mention his head to head verbal battles with Spall are a thrill to watch.
This thrill is mainly provided through playwright David Hare’s script. Mick Jackson directs with a measured sensitivity, but by the story’s very nature this is not the place for directorial tricks. His focus is sharp and other than an unnecessary use of imagery involving Jews being marched to the gas chambers he avoids all temptation to sensationalise. Hare’s words though are effective and richly detailed. He doesn’t attempt to dial down the lawyer speak, although the exposition inevitably creeps up to make things palatable to mainstream audiences, but always finds the humanity even in someone as monstrous as Irving. The fact that a film concerning a drawn out court case and little in the way of explosive moments manages to be so gripping is a testament to his bountiful dialogue.
In this age of Trump and fake news Denial has some pertinently vital things to say about the nature of free speech, the power of words and the rise, even in the 90s (it is set in 1998) of a media that favours catchy slogans rather than factual news. The debate over whether we should just wilfully believe in past events just because we’ve been told them rather than actual tangible facts is an important question and Denial conveys this with subtlety. It’s desire to look for the truth and the importance it places on telling those truths is palpably important in these dark times. I would advise a certain US president to watch this but I fear its powerful message would be lost on him. Do not let it be lost on you.
Verdict: Although it would be stronger on the small screen, the power of this films’ championing of truth over evil is undeniable. Tightly controlled and acted with aplomb, it is a quietly vital piece of cinema in a world where we seem to have lost the very notion of tolerance.