Watching Denial should make you angry. You should be angry that holocaust denier David Irving and others like him even exist, but you should be especially mad that Irving and his ilk have no obligation to support any of the claims they make with evidence. On the contrary, British law dictates that no matter how ludicrous Irving’s claims may be – such as his declaration that the holocaust never took place – it is not his responsibility to support his claims with evidence, the burden of proof lies with anybody who dares to challenge Irving’s twisted view of history. This, effectively, means that Irving is free to say whatever he wants, no matter how inaccurate or offensive, until somebody is prepared to challenge such views in court. That somebody is Deborah Lipstadt, a Jewish-American university professor and author who finds herself being sued for libel by Irving when she dares to state the obvious; that Irving is a racist, an anti-Semite and a liar.
Directed by Mick Jackson and with Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall facing off as Lipstadt and Irving respectively, Denial is a riveting examination of a case that held Irving accountable for the deliberate skewing of facts in a bid to rewrite history to suit his own agenda. Despite the very broad implications of the outcome of the trial, this is a very contained film with most of the goings-on confined to lawyer’s offices and court rooms, a visit to the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp the only exception. Very much privileging dialogue over action, the film relies very heavily on the performances of the various actors to make the course of events engaging and easy for the audience to understand. As such, everybody does a terrific job in that regard with Weisz and Spall leaving you in no doubt how much these two real life characters hate each other. Andrew Scott is very disconcerting at times as the creepily clinical, but highly skilled solicitor Anthony Julius, the man who represented Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles, while Tom Wilkinson is the perfect combination of weariness, wisdom and courtroom cunning as barrister Richard Rampton. Also remarkably assured in her role as Laura Tyler – a young paralegal assisting Julius – is South Africa-born, New Zealand actress Caren Pistorious, who cut her teeth on Australian television. Starting off with a deer-in-headlights naivety in what is a remarkably important case with which to launch a legal career she’s not even sure she wants, Laura cannot hide her distaste for Irving when they first meet, but she ultimately emerges as a highly competent and critical member of the legal team.
It is easy to dismiss films like Denial as awards bait, with high profile actors re-enacting true events, but this is very much a story worth telling, ensuring the atrocities of the Holocaust do not fade from public consciousness. It is a complex fight though between the two parties and screenwriter David Hare’s adaptation of Lipstadt’s book makes it easy to follow for those of us who are not lawyers or historians. The filmmakers have endeavoured to remain faithful to actual events, with all of the dialogue in the courtroom scenes taken verbatim from the trial records, albeit edited for brevity, clarity and dramatic license. However, Denial never presents as condescending or overly manipulative. Yes, Irving is characterised as a loathsome individual, but it would be difficult to present him as anything else and it is to Spall’s immense credit that he is willing to take on a despicable character; delivering a knockout performance to boot. Weitz is equally impressive as the feisty American who struggles to understand both the British legal system and the tactics being employed by Julius and his team in a case that ultimately spans four years before the 333-page judgement is delivered.
This might not be the most searing rendition of real life events we have seen on the big screen, but it is pretty impressive nonetheless. Solid performances across the board make Denial an engrossing, thought-provoking, insightful and emotional story. With his first feature film since L.A. Story and The Bodyguard back in the early 1990’s (although he did win an Emmy for his work on 2010 TV movie Temple Grandin), Jackson has made a triumphant return to the big screen with a powerful drama that should make you angry, but should ultimately leave you feeling satisfied that justice prevailed.