Director : Mick Jackson
Cast : Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Alex Jennings, Caren Pistorius, Mark Gatiss
Genre : Biography/Historical/Drama
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 17 November 2016
Rating : PG-13
In 2000, the U.K. saw one of the most explosive libel trials in history: Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz), an American historian, was sued by Holocaust denier David Irving (Spall). This film, based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier recounts the dramatic court proceedings. Irving, who contended that Hitler never ordered the genocide of Jews, claimed that Lipstadt had defamed him and damaged his reputation by calling him out on his claims. Lipstadt’s legal team is headed by solicitor advocate Anthony Julius (Scott), known for defending Princess Diana during her divorce from Prince Charles. Representing Lipstadt in the courtroom is Richard Rampton QC (Wilkinson), a leading British libel lawyer. With Irving representing himself and Sir Charles Grey (Jennings) as the presiding judge, the high-stakes case draws the attention of the press and holocaust survivors alike.
It might be tempting for jaded audiences to dismiss Denial out of hand as bog-standard Oscar bait. After all, it has respectable actors, most of whom are British, re-enacting true events centring on heavy themes. We’d implore you to set your cynicism aside, because this is a story worth telling. Each passing year puts more distance between us and the atrocities of the Second World War, but films like Denial rightly champion the relevance and value of remembering and learning about the Holocaust. Most viewers aren’t historians or lawyers, so it falls to screenwriter/playwright David Hare to adapt Lipstadt’s book into digestible morsels. The resulting film is engaging, easy to follow and even thrilling at the right junctures.
Director Mick Jackson’s body of work, including blockbusters The Bodyguard and Volcano, might not belie subtlety. However, Jackson did win an Emmy for directing the made-for-HBO biopic Temple Grandin. There are times when it feels that the technicalities of the trial have been oversimplified for brevity, clarity and dramatic license, but Denial never comes off as overwrought or condescending. There is an effort made to be faithful to actual events: all the dialogue in the courtroom scenes is taken verbatim from the trial records. The sequence in which Lipstadt, Rampton and the legal team travel to Auschwitz to gather facts was shot on location and is appropriately haunting and sombre. The judicious use of brief flashbacks depicting the Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp are a way for the reality to hit home without the film being emotionally manipulative.
Weisz is an actress who effortlessly embodies fierce intelligence, and the Oscar-winner gets to sink her teeth into a wonderfully meaty role here. Lipstadt is characterised as a principled, serious academic, who doesn’t take kindly to being told she cannot stand up for herself and who baulks at being discouraged from testifying. Weisz is an English actress playing an American woman, surrounded by English actors using their natural accents, and is completely believable. In the English justice system, the burden of proof lies with the defendant, not the plaintiff, something which baffles Lipstadt. When Lipstadt clashes with her legal team, we’re rooting for her, and she’s not afraid to admit she was wrong when she realises the rationale behind their advice.
Seeing as this is based on Lipstadt’s first-hand account, it stands to reason that David Irving would be characterised as a thoroughly despicable man, but one could argue that he’s done a fine enough job of that on his own. Still, there’s a complexity to Irving’s views, however skewed, which gets skimmed over in Denial. Irving doesn’t dispute that Jews were killed by Nazis; he disputes that there was an executive order from Hitler specifically targeting Jews. As depicted in the film, Irving seizes on minutiae, distorting the facts to serve his ideology. He longs to be taken seriously in academia despite his views. It’s been said that it’s more fun playing bad guys, and Spall’s performance is evidence of that. Spall has an expressive visage, visibly relishing every second of hateful bluster and does a whole lot of indignant frowning.
While Scott may be better known for his villainous roles, he’s also fun to watch as Lipstadt’s steadfast ally. He’s composed but direct and keeps a stiff upper lip. Wilkinson’s Rampton looks at first to be a crusty curmudgeon and Lipstadt locks horns with him, but then we get one of the film’s best scenes, in which they cordially break bread and come to an understanding. As architectural historian Robert Jan Van Pelt, an expert witness for the defence, Mark Gatiss turns in a quietly moving, thoughtful performance. Caren Pistorius also makes an impact in her relatively small role as Laura Tyler, a young lawyer on her first case. In her introductory scene, Tyler visits Irving’s house to deliver materials the defence has gathered, and glowers at him in disgust. Lipstadt later develops a heart-warming, almost maternal bond with Tyler.
Denial may not be the most searing or pertinent film based on a true story, but it is insightful and emotional all the same. Bringing history into the courtroom changes things up from your average legal drama, and its real-life heroine is one you’ll be cheering for throughout the film.
Summary: The court case at the centre of Denial is a tricky one to bring to life, but an able cast led by Rachel Weisz at her sharpest and a sound, cogent script make it a moving, thought-provoking piece.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars