‘Denial’ MOVIE REVIEW: Solid but Unspectacular Courtroom Drama Touches on Weighty Truths

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Denial is the true story of the 1996 libel case brought against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books by the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving. Taken to the British High Court over her book, she is compelled to prove under British libel law that Irving willingly lied and misrepresented facts in order to support his own twisted worldview.

As the case progresses, Lisptadt’s legal team elect not to put her, nor any Holocaust survivors on the stand, reasoning that it would play into Irving’s hands. He would delight in humiliating and undermining them in court. As such, Denial takes an interesting turn as Lipstadt becomes marginalised in her own defence case, causing conflict within the ranks of her own team.

Based on the famous case and adapted from Lipstadt’s subsequent book on the subject, Denial deals with a weighty and important legal event with an appropriate amount of respect and sensitivity. And with Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson in lead roles, it is loaded with a cast of quality actors all set for a rousing courtroom drama. But it never quite materialises. There is something oddly muted about the end result. Perhaps due to the complexity of the case, perhaps due to an overabundance of incidental characters, either way, Denial never quite gets going in the way you want it to.

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As Lipstadt, Weisz does well, but with so much legal evidence to cram in and Lipstadt’s courtroom role relegated to that of spectator, we never really feel close enough to her. Her strength and forthrightness is curtailed by the defence strategy, and is likewise curtailed in the movie. At times she serves the story more as an avatar than a character.

Wilkinson fares better as Richard Rampton, Lipstadt’s barrister, for two reasons. Firstly, he has much more to do, and secondly, Wilkinson is a fantastic actor who could read a paint catalogue and make it sound like Shakespeare.

Spall, an impeccable actor in his own right, is perfectly cast as Irving. He encapsulates just the right amount of arrogant pomposity and deluded self belief. He always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. Spall handles the Irving oxymoron particularly well when adamantly denying he is a racist, and simultaneously making very racist statements.

Andrew Scott (better known to most as Moriarty from the BBCs Sherlock) deserves mention as solicitor Antony Julius, and Mark Gatiss provides decent support as Professor Robert Jan van der Pelt, although he struggles with a German accent at times. Most of the other characters are left as little more than quick sketches.

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Working against the film is the fact we never really get a sense of public opinion, bar the odd newspaper headline or bustling journalist crowd outside the court. We don’t get the full weight of the stakes involved.

To its credit, Denial does pose some interesting questions. In Irving’s dogged refusal of objectivity we might consider the nature of close mindedness, something that feels increasingly relevant in today’s world of Brexit subterfuge, Trump and ‘alternative facts’. How do we engage a person in a discourse when their own pre-conceived ideas are more important to them than having a mind open to new ones? How do we deal with the challenge of people who don’t want to discuss issues, and wilfully choose to ignore compelling evidence if contrary to their views?

Denial also makes an excellent point about the nature of free speech. Lipstadt points out that while Irving might have the freedom to say what he wants, that doesn’t allow him to lie and be unaccountable for it. In today’s world of internet trolls and Twitter wars, it feels like an especially important point to make.

Much like Spotlight, the subject matter in Denial is a worthy one and respectfully handled, but ultimately it is hard to work out how director Mick Jackson (L.A. Story, The Bodyguard) and screenwriter David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) saw a movie in this. When we get right down to it, Denial is a well-intentioned, solid but unspectacular courtroom procedural. The legal stuff may be laid down effectively, but the drama is harder to pinpoint.