Director: Mick Jackson
Screenplay: David Hare
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Alex Jennings
Runtime: 110 Minutes
The subject matter of Denial feels like it couldn’t have come about at a better time even if the filmmakers had planned it. Opening like a lecture of important questions regarding the importance of proof and evidence and findings surrounding the Holocaust, the film dramatises the infamous Irving v Penguin Books Ltd case in which Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) was sued by famed Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) for libel, based on inflammatory accusations written about Irving in one of Lipstadt’s books.
It starts as a bit of a shouting match as we are introduced to both characters the moment they meet each other and immediately clash at a Q&A and rushes through the specifics of the cases beginning, but as it settles down it becomes something far more collected and concentrated as to its goals as a dramatic adaptation of a true to life story. Playwright David Hare has a remarkable talent when it comes to engaging dialogues and closed settings, and his excellently detailed screenplay and study of events is at the firm core of the production.
By transferring the case over to Britain, Irving feels as though this gives him the upper hand as the burden of proof lies with the accused in such a case. But this is used in the firm's favour as they undercut Irving’s smug intellectualism by allowing him to dispense with a jury that might be easily swayed. It then delves deeper into the specifics of the case, including the reputation of the firm handling the defence, the balancing of the evidence with the sensationalism of tabloid news, and the urge to settle as a means of defusing the farce that would only further Irving’s ego and intentions.
The way in which the story handles the fact of having the prove the Holocaust happened is the most interesting power play, as its facts against facts and the achievements of the mind over the efforts of the heart. Though the Nazi’s tried their best to destroy the evidence of their crimes, the testimonies of actual survivors cannot be used as they would only be ridiculed by Irving before the eyes of the media.
Deborah Lipstadt’s position as both a Jew and a woman makes it a very personal attack, and her determination to prove herself to the world despite her qualifications only makes the drama fiercer. Being based on her own memoirs the film’s sympathies lie with her, as do the audiences barely withheld rage at Irving emulated by Weisz’s first-rate performance. Irving is loud, brash, extremely calculated and eloquent and the excellent Spall makes the character almost likable as a presence despite his awful beliefs and attitudes. It’s also endlessly satisfying to see him bested and dismantled as the liar he is by the supporting cast of Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott.
The question that arises is close to the reality of the case; that being how close can the drama of the case go before simply becoming a trial for the Holocaust as opposed to the specifics of the libel case? Also, how much does the film end up buying into this idea? It’s hard not to allow it to devolve into a matter of the heart and the power of the system, but the final scenes feel schmaltzy in a way that the rest of the film hasn’t. Director Mick Jackson hasn’t directed a feature since 1997’s Volcano, and as with that, his sentiments get the better of him by the ending. The look and lighting of the film are exceptional, as is Jackson’s attention to period detail, but it offers little unique cinematically beyond some odd daydream moments.
It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but this is a story that feels shockingly relevant today and a brilliant commentary on what freedom of speech and expression really means. To be a good historian one is to remain objective, but to also remain human in the exercise. It’s a stimulating war at the heart of this solid effort that keeps it interesting.