Based on a true story of the 1996 libel case brought by British historian David Irving against Penguin Books and Jewish-American professor Deborah E. Lipstadt, who labelled Irving as a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, Denial chronicles how Lipstadt and her British legal team had to prove that the Holocaust actually happened. Mick Jackson’s film about this lengthy legal battle could have been fascinating and should’ve been powerful, especially in the “alternative facts” and “fake news” era we currently live in. David Hare’s weighty script positively fizzles with present-day similarities, but instead of a frighteningly timely drama, we’re left with a frustratingly pedestrian film steeped in courtroom drama clichés, and an execution which never feels cinematic.
You can’t fault the film’s all-in commitment to factual authenticity, as the trial scenes are directly based on the actual transcripts, and the dialogue is verbatim from the court records. However, the central performances prove to be problematic.
Rachel Weisz plays the permed Lipstadt as a loud, fish-out-of-water Yank lost in the British judiciary system and comes off as grating and smug. She serves as a noble mouthpiece for the victims of the Holocaust, but her righteous fury frequently borders on the ridiculous, especially when her character feels the need to emphasise that Deborah is Hebrew for “warrior”, a fact cringingly mirrored when she jogs up to the iconic statue of warrior queen Boadicea, found near the Houses of Parliament in London. As for Timothy Spall, he is so damn good as Irving that you want to know more about this hateful, reptilian figure. You never once side with him, but Spall – unlike Weisz – adds layers to a performance that could easily have wound up as a moustache-twirling baddie in the hands of a lesser actor. These clear good vs. evil antipodes and their thespian treatments create a bizarre dynamic in which Spall’s superior portrayal shows up Weisz’s. This culminates in a lack of emotional catharsis when the protagonist you’re rooting for wins; instead, you wish the film had gotten to the root of what makes this villain a villain.
It is this lack of ambition, coupled with some trite beats, which undermines the drama and cheapens the thought-provoking material about memory and objective truth vs prejudiced distortion. The real-life case and its parallels with current events may be interesting enough to keep you invested, but there’s no denying Denial needed a far more subtle approach… or far more balanced casting.
Denial | Directed by Mick Jackson (UK/US, 2016) with Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson. Starts April 13.
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