How do you prove the Holocaust actually happened? That is the premise faced by Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor of Holocaust studies, and her legal team, after a Holocaust denier files a libel lawsuit against her and her publisher. The Mick Jackson-directed film, based on a true story and adapted from Lipstadt's own 'History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier', examines this question and the burden of proof in a libel case on the accused in the United Kingdom court system. Released in the UK on International Holocaust Day, it carries a hefty thematic framework and delicate subject matter that unfolds in this rather low-key but effective drama.
When Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) speech is disrupted by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a scholar of Nazi Germany and disputer of the Holocaust, she finds herself embroiled in a court case in which she must proof that David Irving specifically knew he was lying in claiming the Holocaust did not occur. Along with her legal team, led by Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) as lead solicitor and Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) as lead barrister, they must face the denier and dismantle his absurd lies and claims.
A mainly British cast are terrific and grounded here; Weisz, a spectacularly underrated actress with recent appearances in The Light Between Oceans and The Lobster proving as such, delivers an engaging and nuanced turn as the inspiring Lipstadt who has to stand by, silently, as she watches others fight her case. It's powerful and restrained, reflective of her character's need to be compliant with her legal teams' strategy, in order to starve Irving's already-inflate ego of the fuel he needs, with her quiet acquiescence in doing such excellently demonstrated through her body language and expressions. Andrew Scott, a personal favourite of mine, isn't given a lot to do here but still manages to craft his dry but determined character with enough personality and intrigue to do right by Lipstadt, with just a faint amount of humour in his delivery, occasionally alleviating this heavy picture. Tom Wilkinson's cross-examining of Irving in the final act is masterful, eloquent and resounding and he is another key player that brings another terrific performance to the fold. Timothy Spall takes what could result into a pure panto role and applies just the right amount of sliminess and squirminess to David Irving's hateful character that feels perfectly suited to the Peter Petigrew actor (who genuinely used to terrify me in the days he played Lord Voldermort's side-kick). Speaking of which, his character evoked an unshakeable air of Mr Donald Trump about him, including one scene outside the courtroom in which he makes a vulgar comment about a woman before attempting to change subject completely. It's a chilling, monstrous performance and I think that says more than enough.
Understated and quietly powerful, Denial offers a satisfying and tasteful dramatisation of one of the most pivotal court cases in history which couldn't be more timely if it tried. Low-key in its approach and never overly complicated in its telling, Denial's decision to put the facts and accuracies of the story front and centre is greatly felt and really respected, with a refusal to descend into cheap tricks to shock or scandalise, courtesy of a compelling and streamlined screenplay from David Hare putting clarity as the focus. Its slender 110 minute runtime is a little scattered with a stronger need for balance but it remains relatively brisk and sharp throughout. Vitalised by a real quality about it - whether thats due to the steady way it is shot, the addition of the 'BBC Films' tag, the complex subject matter it handles or very probably a combination of all of the above - Denial feels like a prestigious product of impassioned and dedicated work. Veteran director Mike Jackson utilises his skill to deliver some impressive camera work; the long, lingering shots of the Auschwitz portray an uncomfortable tranquility and stillness, contrasted with the horrors the camp enclosed, with Jackson demonstrating this in a respectful and sensitive way; the whole sequence is without its loud, gratuitous and ostentatious moments and uses this slice of historical iconography in a moving and refined way. The same can be said for the way he considers the themes of the piece too, examining the importance of preserving and protecting our history and truth in an impactful way that never loses focus of this message.
Despite the power of its themes, subject matter and performances, Denial is a slightly flawed piece of film-making. It follows a very formulated path that it never deviates from, with the step-by-step story lacking the element of energy and vitality; there is an argument to be heard that the story depends on a level of patience from its audience, considering it actually covers a two year time period, and that can be really appreciated - but that doesn't all together impede the film from feeling a little by-the-numbers. It takes a good thirty minutes for the film to find the route it wants to take, and even longer to actually get there, but the second and third act are solid enough to forgive this weakness. However, the most striking issue this film has it that it does not feel placed on the right platform to tell this story on: throughout the entire story, there was a sense that the material would work in a superior way as a two-part television series, broken up over two one-hour slots, absolutely at home on BBC Two. Please don't think that is an outright criticism of the film, as we all know by now that film and television are much of a muchness in terms of quality and entertainment value nowadays, and Denial does work in its current format - but it maybe isn't the platform to afford all the justice this true life story deserves.
You cannot deny the importance of a story as powerful as Denial. It is told in an impassioned way by a dedicated team both in front and behind the camera; the cast are all-round impressive, with Weisz and Spall deserving particular praise for their opposing performances, in almost every respect. It never tries to oversell the moments and handles them with the right amount of respect and dignity, delivering the facts above all else. Its conclusion, despite knowing the outcome, is cathartic and satisfying, with the theme of truth powering through and shining even in the film's duller moments. It does have its flaws and the flaws can be frustrating but the importance of the story is undeniable and trumps any of the film's downfalls. It's devastatingly timely.
Summary: Understated and quietly powerful, Denial may not be the most exciting, most gripping, or most intense of films, but it very well may be the most important film you see this year. It's devastatingly timely.
Highlight: The Auschwitz scenes are so, so powerful. The film really hits its stride here.