One of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments in history gets the big screen treatment with Denial. Concerning the real-life story of Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor of Holocaust studies, who had a libel lawsuit filed against her by Holocaust denier David Irving, this talky, prosaic retelling of events gets by on the strength of its subject matter.
The film’s chief focus is the strategy employed by Lipstadt’s lawyers during the 1996 British court case. As British law places the burden of proof on the defendant rather than the plaintiff, it was up to Lipstadt’s team to prove that the Holocaust really happened in order to demonstrate that Irving lied. You wouldn’t think such a thing would be difficult to prove, but indeed, complications arise.
As Irving creates more publicity with his inflammatory assertions, the Jewish community in England become riled. Holocaust survivors want to take the stand and testify as witnesses, but Lipstadt’s legal team counter that Irving will only humiliate and exploit them publicly, as he has in the past.
Lipstadt too has her hands tied, reluctantly taking a back seat as Irving’s own statements become the focus of the trial.
This is quite a dry, verbose affair, brought to life by the performances. Rachel Weisz, who always has a commanding presence on screen, brings plenty of fire to the role of Lipstadt. Intelligent, eloquent, and full of rage, she is the film’s obvious selling point.
Timothy Spall, who can play oily miscreants as convincingly as anyone, makes for a suitably uncomfortable nemesis. Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott are also very good as Lipstadt’s barrister and solicitor respectively.
There may not be a lot of complexity when it comes to where our allegiances lie between the accused and the defendant, but there is a fair amount of intricacy in depicting the machinations of how the law is applied.
Director Mick Jackson seems like a strange choice for the material. Having worked mainly in television, his big screen career is dominated by the success of the Whitney Houston vehicle, The Bodyguard. His treatment is strictly by the numbers.
Thankfully he has a sharp, concise script to work with, penned by playwright David Hare, whose occasional forays into screenplays include The Hours and The Reader. Hare knows how to cut to the heart of the matter and draw out the most emotive elements of a story.
The subject matter alone makes this a film worth watching. What may appear at first glance to be a cut and dry argument, becomes quite a complex tactical exercise.
Denial is in limited release from April 13
Richard Leathem @dickiegee