Movie Review: Denial (2016)
“The whole world knows the Holocaust happened. Now she needs to prove it.”
Director: Mick Jackson
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall
Synopsis: An American University professor must prove the Holocaust truly happened in order to fight a libel suit brought against her by a historian who is also a Holocaust denier.
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There’s a wealth of dramatic content to be found in the legal battle waged between historian and Holocaust denier David Irving and American university professor Deborah Lipstadt; the implications regarding freedom of speech and the potential misuse of the legal system by those with a personal or political agenda are far-reaching and important, and to find such issues so neatly encapsulated within one factual case would seem like a godsend. But the decision of director Mick Jackson and screenwriter David Hare to devote more time to the emotional turmoil experienced by Lipstadt at being forced to prove the Holocaust actually took place and her subsequent differences of opinion with her legal team regarding their defence against Irving’s charge of libel too often allows the film’s more important issues to be shunted to the sidelines.
Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz – Agora, Dream House) is a headstrong and forthright woman who, despite her academic background, is shown as allowing her emotional responses to overwhelm her professional pragmatism. Despite the warnings of a top-notch legal team led by solicitor Anthony Julia (Andrew Scott – Saving Private Ryan, Spectre) and fly-fishing, red wine quaffing barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson – The Lone Ranger, Snowden), she wants to take to the stand to defend her accusations that Irving is a racist and anti-Semite and to offer Holocaust survivors the opportunity to give their own eye-witness testimony. Thankfully, level-headed circumspection overcomes passionate indignation, and Lipstadt, who comes across as a spiky and rather unlikeable individual, is confined to the bench, from where she casts venomous glances in Irving’s direction. Conversely, Irving (Timothy Spall) is portrayed as a rather genial gentleman, which might serve to illustrate how insidious political extremism can wear a mask of polite and reasonable civility but also makes his rival’s prickliness even less endearing.
Denial’s first half focuses almost exclusively on the Lipstadt team’s preparations for the case, including a journey to Auschwitz which neatly establishes the uneasy relationship between the need for emotional detachment and the highly charged nature of the subject matter. The turbulent personal dynamics are calmed over the course of the film’s second half as the action moves to the Old Bailey, and Hare’s screenplay yields to the transcripts of the actual case. This perhaps explains why Jackson and his team struggle to create the level of tension and suspense for which it strives – after all, reality is rarely as exciting as the movies, and Rampton’s successful picking apart of Irving’s arguments is never the dramatic high point that many might have anticipated.
The deficiencies of the film’s treatment are at least tempered by strong performances, particularly from Wilkinson as the barrister whose unassuming demeanour conceals a razor-sharp legal mind, while the under-appreciated Timothy Spall is wonderfully oily as the intelligent but unctuous Irving, who is defeated as much by his own ego as the legal wizardry of his opposition.
Although the case was a personal victory for Lipstadt, who proved she wasn’t lying when she wrote that Irving was an anti-Semite, any reasonable person who read his work would already have come to that conclusion, and so in that sense the case achieved little – if anything: Irving still peddles his revisionist view of history to a small but vociferous band of acolytes. Human nature being what it is, there’ll always be an audience for his brand of hatred.
(Reviewed 28th December 2016)