Denial (2017) – Movie Review
Directed by: Mike Jackson
Written by: David Hare
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson & Andrew Scott
Music: Howard Shore
Release Date: January 27th 2017
Let’s face it, 2016 was a terrible year for truth. Fake News dominated the public conversation, feelings and outrage took over the need for fact-based discussion and major political movements such as the rise of Donald Trump and Brexit were almost entirely propagated by falsehoods. In regards to being topical, the entertainment industry like to try and create media that reflects the talking-points at the time or anticipate cultural shifts. For example, films such as ‘Miss Sloane‘ and ‘Jackie‘ anticipated America’s first female president but had the wind taken out of their sales when that did not happen and we also have “Speaking truth to power” films in the near future like ‘The Post‘ and ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House‘ being greenlit the moment the U.S.A. became a strict plutocracy.
It’s in a strange middle-ground that we find ‘Denial‘; a low-budget U.S./U.K. co-production that now finds itself being incredibly relevant as it details a story in the late-90s/early-2000s when facts fought a legal battle against fiction (bolstered by Nazism). A film that would have normally gone under the radar during its initial run can now be seen as a film dealing with very relevant subject matter almost by complete coincidence. But, we still have a movie to look at even if the current political/social climate puts a lot of added pressure on that film’s shoulders. Can ‘Denial‘ give us hope that truth wins or is there a deeper form of denial we need to come to terms with.
In 1996, Historian and Holocaust specialist Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) is hosting a talk on Holocaust Denial when it is interrupted by infamous denier David Irving (Spall). Afterwards, he sues Lipstadt for libel in the UK after claiming that Deborah defames him in her books. With the case taking place in the UK, the burden of proof lies with the accused meaning that Deborah needs to prove that Irving knowingly lied about the Holocaust in his own books. With her legal team including solicitor Anthony Julius (Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Wilkinson), Deborah attempts to defend herself in court, however due to the media-savvy approach of Irving she finds herself backed into a corner and needing to defend the idea of truth itself in court.
Despite ‘Denial‘ telling a great true story, the actual nuts-and-bolts of the event do not lend well to a cinematic re-telling. Despite the court case of “Irving v Penguin Books Ltd” being an event more people should know about with Deborah Lipstadt being at the centre of it, she can very easily come across as passive in her own story. In the real life events, Deborah was instructed by her legal team to not take to the stand, or bring in Holocaust survivors or confront Irving directly due to those things being exactly what Irving wants. It could become so easy in an adaptation for Deborah to become a bystander, but ‘Denial‘ goes for a different approach that doesn’t compromise on the true events.
‘Denial‘ acts both as a historical exercise and also in a narrative that allows the audience to take away the ethos of Holocaust Denial; such as those involved in conspiracy theories such as Holocaust Denial often being motivated by other factors like trying to present themselves as oppressed underdogs, acting like they won even when they demonstrably didn’t and often want to make a spectacle of the event in order to “appear” right. It’s these grand gestures that make Irving such a despicable character to watch over the course of the film and suitably get any (reasonable) viewer riled up in the court case.
But the film is also able to be as well-balanced on this topic as one reasonably can be. For example, one of the film’s first scenes has Deborah teaching a class on Holocaust Denial and asks the class to tell her how they know it happened for a fact. One student responds “Photographs?” but the Nazis made sure no photos of the Holocaust were ever taken or released to the public. So it’s these blank spaces in history that can allow denial to take root. An argument is also made for why Deborah should also settle the case out of court so that Irving isn’t given a new lease on life or a platform to promote his antisemitism and this is ‘Denial‘s ever-clever hook; it doesn’t showcase an important story, but rather it makes a case for WHY this story is important and becomes a multi-faceted meta-narrative about restraint, having conviction and standing up for something on principal.
But this film isn’t just a scripted documentary as there are actual characters here being performed by brilliant actors with Rachel Weisz during a terrific job at holding the screen despite being continually pushed to the sidelines. As one character says to her “This case is happening to you, but it’s not about you.“. In a way, it’s frustrating to see, but in the end it’s absolutely the right decision but it’s equally right to cast someone incredibly talented like Weisz (who nails the New York accent) who can loom large over the film as she stands at the epicentre of this case despite not being allowed to fully engage with it. There is a “twist” in the closing moments of the trial to retroactively involve her more in the story, but it feels like something that should have been ever-present within the narrative and not a “gotcha” moment as everything starts to wind down.
Timothy Spall does get the showier role as Irving and he’s terrifically slimy but also there are some moments to throw the audience through a loop like a scene where he’s playing with one of his children. His cadence and public speaking makes it clear why many people decided to take him seriously as a historian and a slimmed-down Spall rises to the challenge of a difficult role (just hearing some of the things Irving said in court is enough to make one shudder, let alone having to perform it for the purposes of a film). The supporting cast give subdued, naturalist performances which works surprisingly well given the vast amount of exposition and legal-jargon present. But the cast acquit themselves very well and allow the audience to hang onto their every word and (more importantly) understand everything that’s going on.
Though, it has to be said that despite the interesting nature of the court case and the strategy implemented by the defence the film never forgets just who this battle was for. One of the movie’s most powerful segments has Deborah and her team visit what remains of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland, a site where 1 million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis. The production crew actually filmed the scene in Auschwitz and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (‘Thor‘, ‘Locke‘, ‘Cinderella‘, ‘Eye In The Sky‘) shows incredible restraint and presents the scene starkly and frequently static, allowing the audience to breathe in the atmosphere and the gravity of the situation.
Outside of that sequence, the film does feel slightly televisual and like a high-end court drama. The locations are well shot, but there is only so much you can do visually when 60% of your film takes place inside a court-house or in the offices of Lawyers. But still, the film is well shot and very well scored by the great Howard Shore (‘The Lord of the Rings‘ Trilogy, ‘Spotlight‘) who knows just when to let the dialogue take over and when the music should bolster the action.
In uncertain, frustrating times it’s great for a movie like ‘Denial‘ to exist to remind people that truth can win. It’s also great that the aforementioned movie is a gripping courtroom drama with brilliant, understated performances with an accessible, multi-layered screenplay that takes the audience on this unbelievable true event in our recent history as well as drawing parallels to our modern culture and stance on justice. It may be chained to the actual events to a fault as our lead does wind up coming across as frustratingly passive and its visual approach is rather bare and televisual but it’s all done with intent and polish and is one of the better dramas to come out in recent years.
“Freedom of speech means you can say whatever you want. What you can’t do is lie and expect not to be held accountable for it. Not all opinions are equal. And some things happened, just like we say they do. Slavery happened, the Black Death happened. The Earth is round, the ice caps are melting, and Elvis is not alive.”
– Deborah Lipstadt, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial”
I give ‘Denial‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 5th Dec 17