Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material and brief Strong Language
Directed by: Mick Jackson
Written by: David Hare
(based on the book HISTORY ON TRIAL: MY DAY IN COURT WITH A HOLOCAUST DENIER by Deborah E. Lipstadt)
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Mark Gatiss, Andrea Deck & John Sessions
It’s Fall and that means potential Oscar contenders are hitting theaters week after week. DENIAL definitely seems to be aiming for some Academy Award nominations. Big name cast giving solid performances? Check. True story that’s being adapted for the big screen and contains sensitive subject matter? Check. Themes that were relevant back in the day and seem sadly just as relevant today? Check. DENIAL has all the basic ingredients for an awards-centric drama and there’s no denying that the film is good. It’s an interesting, emotional true story told in a classy, dialogue-driven manner. This movie is filled with talking heads and heavy moments, but it also occasionally ventures into by-the-numbers storytelling and clichéd dialogue.
Historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) has written a book about Holocaust deniers. After dedicating a few harshly worded paragraphs towards revisionist historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), she’s shocked to find that the disgraced Irving has filed a libel suit against her in England. Whereas the USA has an “innocent until proven guilty” standpoint, U.K. libel cases lay the burden of proof upon the accused. Therefore, Lipstadt and her large legal team face an uphill battle to prove that Irving knowingly distorted history to fit his ideology. In other words, they have to prove that the Holocaust happened in court against the most “academic” Holocaust denier in the world.
DENIAL is a courtroom drama that features one of history’s biggest atrocities on trial. The step by step legal process is shown as Deborah and top lawyer Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) gather whatever evidence they can to prove that gas chambers were used to exterminate Jews during World War II. Surprisingly, this is easier said than done…because the Third Reich went out of their way to eliminate evidence of their inhumane actions. Legal strategies are examined in scenes of advocate Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) devising a less-is-more approach. This latter area puts DENIAL in a unique position because we never get a passionate verbal stand-off between Lipstadt and Irving in the courtroom. Instead, this is a battle of wits, ideas, and history. Points are made about how we know the Holocaust happened and positions that deniers usually take, informing the viewer as well as retelling an unbelievable true story.
Performances are mostly solid across the board, though the script’s dialogue can occasionally be heavy-handed and cheesy. Rachel Weisz’s fake New York accent fades in and out, but she seems to have gotten the general gist of the real person she’s playing. After seeing interviews with Lipstadt, Weisz captured the woman…even if her accent is a bit shaky and some lines are eye-rollingly corny (e.g. a conversation where she talks about how she always knew there was a big event looming in her future). Tom Wilkinson steals the show as a Scottish lawyer who seemingly always has a bottle of wine in his hand. Wilkinson’s scenes with Weisz and his passionate questioning of Stall’s Irving stick out as the film’s best bits.
As egocentric revisionist historian David Irving, Timothy Spall is perfectly despicable. You’ll find yourself wishing that you could jump through the screen and give him a piece of your mind, but that’s exactly what people like David Irving feed off of. The film makes a point to show what a horrible, racist, anti-Semitic jerk he was/is and how ridiculous the entire libel lawsuit was from the get go. Though many other supporting characters pop in and out (a seemingly unbiased judge and a 23-year-old lawyer on her first case), Adam Scott is captivating as Lipstadt’s advocate and has one hugely passionate moment.
Besides Weiz’s so-so accent and noticeably corny dialogue, DENIAL’s main fault is that the film feels like it’s by the numbers. This story is retold in a basic straightforward manner that doesn’t fully take advantage of the actual events, though solid performances and powerful moments still manage to elevate it above a mediocre courtroom drama. This film isn’t bad or bland. On the contrary, it’s a compelling movie driven by fantastic acting. I just felt like there should have been a bigger emotional impact left by the time that the end credits began to roll. If this story speaks to you and you’re in the mood for a well-acted courtroom drama, DENIAL is worth watching.