'Denial': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A compelling, true courtroom drama touches on the lingering pain of the Holocaust.

Rachel Weisz defends the Holocaust in a British court in the political drama co-starring Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson.

Defending truth is the subject of the compelling courtroom drama Denial, which forcefully recounts the sensational lawsuit for libel brought by English historical author and Holocaust denier David Irving against American academic Deborah E. Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books. Her influential work, now retitled Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, is sensitively dramatized by director Mick Jackson and screenwriter David Hare, who choose to stick as close to the real story as possible. Rachel Weisz’s arresting, combative Lipstadt, a shining woman warrior, is a role she will be remembered for, while as her antagonist Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) makes a spookily stubborn, thoroughly despicable, but still human Irving.

Denial is a film that makes few missteps, and its Holocaust theme can be counted on to draw a variety of audiences. Hare’s screenplay is carefully balanced but not morbidly respectful, allowing moments  many moments  of humor to lighten its weighty topic. This makes the lengthy courtroom hearings interesting, appealing not just to viewers of Claude Lanzmann’s heart-wrenching Shoah documentaries, but to wider audiences as well.

One imagines an additional concern was portraying the litigious publicity-seeker Irving in non-libelous but still biting terms. All the dialogue in the courtroom scenes is taken verbatim from the trial records, giving them an almost documentary level of realism.

Hare negotiates between these shoals while still hitting hard at the Nazi sympathizer Irving for his distortion of the historical evidence in the service of rehabilitating Adolf Hitler. The film opens with a bang on Deborah’s fateful 1994 lecture at Emory University in Atlanta, where she teaches Jewish Studies. Her book has just been published by Penguin, and the lecture hall is packed with students. Suddenly a man stands up and identifies himself as David Irving, challenging her to debate him on whether the Holocaust ever happened.

Lipstadt declines and angrily throws him out, but two years later she receives a letter in the mail postmarked England. Irving is suing her for libel on the grounds her book has ruined his career.

Deborah is soon meeting with famed British solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) who represented Lady Diana in her divorce case and has a framed and signed clipping in his office to prove it. Lipstadt’s introduction to British law offers a foretaste of headaches to come, when Julius tells her that in libel cases the burden of proof is on the defendant, not the plaintiff as in America. Sort of a running gag, the cultural divide between England and the States furnishes a series of small shocks and adjustments that are alternately perplexing and humorous for both parties.

She still has a choice to settle with Irving out of court, but her conscience is outraged at the idea. Raising money for her defense proves no problem, and she flies to London to meet her legal team who are top in their field. To her surprise, she discovers solicitor Julius will be preparing the case but not defending her in court; that task falls to noted barrister Richard Rampton, roundly portrayed by Tom Wilkinson as a hard-drinking, hard-hitting libel lawyer whose eloquence on the floor is a show-stopper. Though Deborah takes a long time to understand him, his brilliant concentration and towering anger on the floor overturn her ideas about him.

Another surprise is that Irving has foregone legal representation and will be defending himself.

While many, if not most, viewers will go into the film already knowing the outcome of the trial, it won’t dilute the conviction that a great deal is at stake and riding on the judge’s momentous ruling. Should Irving win the case, it will make it legitimate to hold an opinion about the Holocaust: those who think it took place vs. those who don’t. Should the judge rule in Lipstadt’s favor, for the first time there will be an important legal ruling confirming it happened.

The historical significance of the case makes it essential for Lipstadt to win and the only way to do that is to follow the strategy of her legal team, which becomes the central drama in the film. With her American directness, Deborah is a fish out of water in London, where her expectations about how the trial will be conducted are continually frustrated. The attorneys she is learning to respect insist neither she nor any Holocaust survivor (and there are many in the courtroom yearning to speak for those who died) take the stand. Their reasoning, which Julius explains to her with unlawyer-like passion, is that the case has to focus on Irving’s deliberate lies and distortions and they must give him no chance to distract attention by attacking and humiliating witnesses.

Weisz lends Deborah a riveting, single-minded presence and makes her search for the truth and her defeat of lies a noble and urgent purpose. Like her Academy Award-winning role as the Amnesty activist in The Constant Gardener, she is a rousing, articulate heroine channeling her passion and energy into a concrete cause. Her Queens accent is amusingly unexpected and just this side of overdone.

Timothy Spall brings a touch of the absurd to the abrasive, distasteful Irving that captures the character without judging or justifying him, or even really explaining him. The audience at the film’s premiere in Toronto cheered when, at trial’s end, the upright Rampton refuses to shake his hand.

Although best known for his Hollywood venture The Bodyguard, Mick Jackson is a experienced BBC TV and Channel 4 filmmaker adept at directing a cast with English wit that in no way detracts from a serious approach to the subject at hand. In this respect Denial is close in spirit to his Emmy-winning TV film Temple Grandin, in which Claire Danes played the autistic heroine.

Howard Shore's moving but subdued music is an example of the sensitive and restrained tech work. Another is Haris Zambarloukos's dreamy cinematography. When the film shifts, at just the right moment, to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, the entire scene is blanketed in thick fog whose piercing melancholy silenced the theater.  

An Elevation Pictures, Bleecker Street, Participant Media, BBC Films presentation of a Krasnoff/Foster Enterainment, Participant Media, Shoebox Films production
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott
Director: Mick Jackson
Screenwriter: David Hare
Producers: Gary Foster, Russ Krasnoff
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Anrew Karpen, Guy Heeley, Celia Duval
Director of photography: Haris Zambarloukos
Production designer: Andrew McAlpine
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Justine Wright
Music: Howard Shore
Casting: Dixie Chassay
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
110 minutes