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Review: Denial (2016)

Denial (2016)

Directed by: Mick Jackson

Premise: Based on a true story. Historian Deborah E. Lipstadt is sued for libel in British courts by Holocaust denier David Irving. The case requires Lipstadt to defend her work and make the case for the reality of the Holocaust.

What Works: Denial is an engaging courtroom drama. The film is engrossing in part because of its subject matter. Denial deals with the odious phenomenon of Holocaust denial; the very topic is infuriating which makes for a good story. But Denial is also a solidly made drama whose implications extend beyond the courtroom. The story strikes a balance between the legal aspects of the case and the moral and ethical implications of Holocaust denial. The movie is led by Rachel Weisz as Deborah E. Lipstadt, a historian and expert on Holocaust denial who was sued for libel when she properly called David Irving on his Nazi sympathies. Weisz frequently plays independent and headstrong feminist characters and she is well suited to the role. But the film is partly about this woman learning when to speak and when to let others do it for her and not in a way that is condescending to her or compromising her values. That trajectory of her character gives the portrayal of Lipstadt some additional depth. Timothy Spall is cast as David Irving and Spall throws himself into the part. As portrayed in Denial, Irving is a rude, sexist, and anti-Semitic pseudo-intellectual and Spall makes no self-conscious effort to make himself likable. The cast also includes Tom Wilkinson as the barrister for the defense. He’s not stretching himself here but like Weisz and Spall, Wilkinson is cast reliably to type and this is the kind of role that he does well. Denial is also distinguished by its regard for the subject matter. At one point the defense team travels to the remains of Auschwitz and the picture offers a somber glimpse of the horror of the Holocaust. The impact of this sequence permeates the rest of the film and elevates the stakes of the story. This isn’t merely a libel case. It is about the regard for truth and the memory of what happened during the Holocaust. If Irving wins the case then the memory of that horror is degraded. That understanding informs the movie and makes the drama much more urgent. It also makes Denial especially relevant to the contemporary viewer. The courtroom fight of this movie is a microcosm of today’s post-truth political environment. 

What Doesn’t: Any storytelling genre has conventions that the audience expects to see and courtroom dramas are no different. Denial does not quite deliver on those moments. It isn’t that Denial subverts the clichés so much as it just doesn’t do those moments especially well. Like many courtroom dramas, Denial has certain turning points in which testimony doesn’t work out the way the defendants expect and the judge rules in a way that flings the outcome into uncertainty. These sequences aren’t always executed in a way that maximizes the drama. That’s especially true when the verdict is announced. The moment that the whole picture is leading to feels anticlimactic. Denial is a good film but it isn’t especially challenging nor does it say much that is interesting or revelatory about libel laws or the phenomenon of Holocaust denial. The moral and ethical sides of the case are clearly defined with little or no ambiguity. That’s no surprise given the figures involved. David Irving is an easy character to hate. He was a revolting human being and Denial does not alter that image. But as a result, this film isn’t especially challenging. It presents us with a bad guy doing bad things to a good woman and our sympathies are set up early and not tested in any way. The story of Irving’s subsequent imprisonment in Austria for Holocaust denial would potentially be a more interesting story.

Bottom Line: Denial is a solid courtroom drama with some good performances. The film is not especially challenging but it does have something more to it beyond the legal procedures.

Episode: #620 (November 6, 2016)