Film Review: Denial

Exceptional performances and writing are among the virtues of this true-life legal drama.
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It’s impossible to imagine how Denial could have been better cast, written or fortuitously blessed with such potent subjects as anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Yet, Mick Jackson’s film is no exposé or exploitation of these subjects. It functions instead as an intense, engaging consideration of historian Deborah Lipstadt’s determination to fight the injustice of lies brashly perpetrated by Holocaust deniers like David Irving and also focuses on the British legal system as it goes about its centuries-old business of achieving the more elusive notion of justice itself.

Rachel Weisz, as Lipstadt—a somewhat tough and frumpy Emory University academic and crusader from Queens sporting appropriate accent, wardrobe and occasional tics—is hardly the usual screen heroine. But in an unglamorous, Oscar-worthy performance (her best in recent memory), Weisz turns her character into someone not just to believe in but to believe.

Both Tom Wilkinson as barrister Richard Rampton, who must do the heavy lifting in defending Lipstadt against Irving’s libel suit, and Andrew Scott as her solicitor Anthony Julius (the behind-the-scenes legal eagle) also triumph as awards bait in their roles. Wilkinson (seemingly a slam-dunk for a BAFTA nomination) as the colorful Scotsman with an unapologetic thirst for good wine, boundless hunger for extensive research, and intense determination to win has the showier role.

Rampton’s challenge is not easy. He must prove, really prove beyond witnesses and scholars, that there was a Holocaust. (There were no cameras in the crematoria to record the mass murders and the Nazis destroyed those structures before they fled.) He must also show that Irving deliberately lied and manipulated facts in maintaining the Holocaust is myth.

Julius, who handled Princess Diana’s divorce, is silkily seductive in looks, manner, Oxbridgian accent and, not least of all, obvious brilliance. What doesn’t come across (for whatever reason) is that Julius is Jewish and, in real life though not depicted here, must have been very personally invested in the case.

Last but far from least is Timothy Spall, creepily authentic as Irving (more BAFTA recognition?), who, true to his arrogant, self-aggrandizing ways, chose to represent himself in court. Irving had a troubled childhood, no higher education, but, self-taught and no doubt fired by his profound anti-Semitism, managed to pass himself off as a historian and expert on the Third Reich. He also maintained an upper-class demeanor and lifestyle, but it’s his unbounded self-confidence and deep denial of what he is that scares.

Well-chosen locations abound, from Lipstadt’s Atlanta, Georgia home to her London hotel digs and London’s regal Royal Court, where the trial is held, to Poland’s Auschwitz and Krakow. The film’s conservative cinematographic style perfectly suits the mood, concerns and period of this historic episode.

Good support also comes from minor characters like those on Lipstadt’s broader legal team (researchers and paralegals) and Holocaust survivors forbidden to appear for the defense (Irving would go at them mercilessly) and some dinner party guests in London’s wealthy Jewish community who resist helping to fund Lipstadt’s effort.

Much of the drama plays out in the courtroom, but there are many sparks between an emotion-prone Lipstadt and her lawyers, as the latter are dead-set against her and survivor participation in the proceedings. (A legal aide explains that the case is “about forensics, not memoralizing.”). Rampton puts it this way: “We have to starve Irving, not feed him,” and Julius contends that “survivors would confuse the issue.” There’s also the tension and media frenzy unleashed during the hearing when the four holes in the crematorium roof where the deadly gas was injected could not be proven to exist. (“No holes, no Holocaust,” barked the headlines with O.J. trial-like pithiness).

As the defense won the right to a trial with no jury and only a judge to decide (Alex Jennings as the stoic, starchy Sir Charles Gray), another potential problem arises when Gray introduces the notion that Irving may be an “honest” anti-Semite who actually believes in what he is saying.

The film’s insights into the British legal system are another bonus, beginning with the curious fact that in cases of libel there is no presumption of innocence on the part of the accused, who is further burdened with having to prove that what is alleged as defamation is actually the truth. And then there’s that curious division of labor on a legal team that has a solicitor overseeing strategy and research and the barrister as the lawyer arguing in the courtroom on behalf of the defendant and against the claimant.

A decision in the case was far from assured, and the film’s literal ticking-clock countdown is also loaded with suspense. No spoiler here, but it turns out there was a Holocaust. Irving was disgraced and, while clearly morally bankrupt, eventually went financially bankrupt as well.

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