The Holocaust: fact or fiction? Even if you’re pretty sure you know the answer, Denial is still a gripping look at the two scholars who actually took to the courts to settle that question.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American historian and professor of Holocaust studies, is interrupted in the middle of a speech by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a famed British Nazi Germany academic whom Lipstadt has labelled a Holocaust denier in her new book. After she refuses to debate Irving publicly on the topic, he sues her for libel. With a crack team of renowned lawyers behind her (including Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott), she enters a widely publicised case with the potential to cause massive historical ramifications and sway the consensus on whether or not the Holocaust actually happened.
Though most of the audience it attracts no doubt already knows the outcome of the incredible court case, writer David Hare (The Reader) and director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard) still manage to wring a great deal of suspense and intrigue out of the famous Irving v Lipstadt and Penguin Books lawsuit in Denial. In fact, the core court scenes are interesting and engaging enough to be ranked among some of cinema’s greatest courtroom dramas. The rest of the film certainly works hard to live up to matching these scenes in engrossment, but doesn’t always reach the same high.
Though a level of emotional connection is certainly necessary to the screen, especially when covering such a sensitive subject, emotion ends up being a peculiar Achilles ’ heel for Denial. Oddly, the cold, informative court proceedings are far more interesting than the scenes in which characters are given the chance to express how they feel about the situation, since more often than not their strong emotions turn them blind to rational, logical thinking.
This particular problem is embodied by Lipstadt herself; Rachel Weisz is great in the role, lathering on a thick Boston accent, but her character often frustrates, ironically due to how strongly she feels about her Jewish ancestry. She’s unable to form arguments when put on the spot by Irving, brushing it off as “not needing to defend truth”. She frequently goes against the advice of her lawyers, attempting to call on Holocaust survivors as witnesses despite their warnings, and can barely contain her pride or anger throughout proceedings as everyone else around her manages to keep a straight face. There’s also her assertion that Irving is attacking her because “she’s a woman”, which, while potentially valid, feels a little too shoehorned in to appease today’s audiences.
Her team of lawyers are the real heroes here, particularly Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton, who conjures up some genius rebuttals to Irving’s admittedly convincing arguments. Timothy Spall shines as the scowling historian, especially in court where he’s allowed to present his evidence against the Holocaust without bias. Elsewhere the film is a little too quick to condemn him as treacherous and villainous; perhaps rightfully so, but it’s tempting to think that this could have been even more provocative and compelling if both sides were given equal contention.
Despite its emotional flaws, Denial is incredibly absorbing to watch. A trip to Auschwitz part way through creates a sombre atmosphere and helps to ground the situation in a sobering reality, reminding us of just what these two intellectuals are squabbling over. The handling of the hearings alone is enough to make Denial a welcome entry to the courtroom drama genre.
Denial is available in Australian cinemas from April 13
Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films