Film review: Denial

David Gritten / 26 January 2017

Saga’s film critic applauds Denial, a tough-minded courtroom drama with a sobering message.

Denial feels like the very definition of a grown-up film. It is serious-minded and intellectually challenging – a courtroom drama that deals with hugely important issues. Should that make it sound impossibly weighty, I would add that it’s briskly paced, with a laudably high standard of acting across the board, a fascinating story and several engrossing characters.

It is an account of a real-life trial that took place in London at the turn of this century. The British historian David Irving, who had notoriously expressed his admiration for Hitler’s Third Reich, sued Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor for libel; she had alleged some of his writings and public statements amounted to Holocaust denial. 

In English libel trials, the burden of proof is on the defendant; so she and her legal team had to establish that Irving deliberately lied. And her brilliant British legal team decided she must stay silent in court and not testify. Nor, as she desperately wanted, could she call Holocaust survivors to the stand to report the horrors they had witnessed; Irving was representing himself, and Deborah’s lawyers would not allow him to browbeat her or the survivors. She was like a fish out of water in a country that felt increasingly foreign to her.

It’s an engaging, unusual story, then, and it’s brilliantly played all round. British actress Rachel Weisz transforms herself to play the garrulous, passionate Deborah. Andrew Scott gives a witty performance as Anthony Julius, the celebrated lawyer who planned her strategy in court, while Tom Wilkinson is gravely impressive as her brilliant, cerebral barrister Richard Rampton.  But perhaps the most remarkable performance is that of Timothy Spall as the unlikeable Irving; standing alone in court, he wheedles, insinuates and generally tries to undermine the confidence of his opponents. Spall plays him as slick and untrustworthy, though his intelligence is never in doubt.

There’s a decidedly stagey feel to Denial, and perhaps not coincidentally its script was written by David Hare, not just a fine screen writer but also one of our most distinguished playwrights. British director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard) also has a background in documentaries, which becomes a clear in sombre scenes when the story briefly shifts to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. 

There is an intriguing argument at the heart of Denial that has real relevance in the world right now: that some facts are irrefutably true, and not open to discussion. The Holocaust happened, no matter how much some people would prefer to believe otherwise. Opinions are opinions, but facts are facts, and Lipstadt has a pithy way of putting it: “The ice caps are melting. Slavery was brutal. And Elvis Presley is dead.” All of which puts all the ‘alternative facts’ emanating from Washington DC in this ‘post-truth’ era into perspective.

Denial demands a fair amount of concentration, but it is handsomely rewarded. This is a powerful story, and that power shines through.

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