Directed by Mick Jackson.
Starring Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, Harriet Walter and Mark Gatiss.
American academic Deborah Lipstadt is accused of libel by historian David Irving when she declares him a Holocaust denier. In a battle for historical truth, she and her legal team have to prove that the Holocaust actually happened. Based on true events.
Timing, as they say, can be everything. In which case, EOne, UK distributors of Denial, have their collective finger squarely on the pulse. If there was ever a time to release this particular film, it’s now. The narrative may be about the exposure of David Irving as a Holocaust denier, but the film is about truth – how it can be manipulated, presented and used to support a point of view. At the start of the year, we were living in a time of “post-truth”: weeks later, the phrase had been abandoned in favour of “fake news”. It’s very much a film for today.
So the film’s inability to get anywhere near the heights it promises comes as let-down. It feels stage bound, as if it had been adapted from a play, yet David Hare’s script is based on Deborah Lipstadt’s own book. The fact that it’s primarily a courtroom drama just reinforces that staginess, but equally problematic is that some of the scenes outside the trial feel like add-ons. Perhaps a play of the book would have been a better – and more successful – idea.
Some of the acting is also better suited to the theatre, especially Timothy Spall’s performance as Irving. He’s one of our finest character actors yet, of late, he’s developed two default settings: brilliant and hammy. This falls very much into the second category, as he gives us an out-and-out villain who peers menacingly from behind curtains, makes servile, ingratiating gestures towards the judge and has facial expressions that are way too large for the screen. All he lacks is a moustache to twirl and a few boos and hisses from the audience. As Lipstadt’s solicitor, the usually reliable Andrew Scott occasionally suffers from the same ailment, but Tom Wilkinson’s barrister comes off better. Outwardly something of an old buffer, once his foe is in the witness box he makes mincemeat of him, never falls for his grandstanding and never, ever looks him in the eye. It doesn’t only display his contempt for Irving, it puts him very much on edge.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the film is what it does with Lipstadt herself. Her relationship with her legal team is nothing short of adversarial: she wants to testify, they won’t let her. As history shows, they were right and she learns that sometimes the obvious way isn’t always the right one. There’s passion in Weisz’s performance but her character – the lead character – is essentially being shut down. And it robs the film of drama.
There’s no doubting Denial’s sincerity, its belief that the story needs to be told and the diligence of its research. The dialogue in the court scenes, for instance, was taken verbatim from court transcripts. But the end result cries out for a shot of intensity. As it stands, the real story is actually more interesting than the film.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★