Denial (2016)

Timothy Spall excels in Mick Jackson’s Denial, a timely film whose high spot is a gripping courtroom drama.

Lest We Forget

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In a film based faithfully on true events, Timothy Spall plays with great gusto British historian David Irving, a Holocaust denier who sued US academic Deborah Lipstadt and her publishers Penguin Books in the English High Court for her alleged libel of him as such. It’s a real culture clash in so many ways. Lipstadt is played gutsily by Rachel Weisz in a voice very close to Lipstadt’s Queens-accented own, forthrightly bemused to discover that British law works the opposite way round to that of the US – in the High Court, to win her case the onus is on her as the defendant to show that what she wrote was true. To do this, she must prove that the Holocaust really happened.

Lipstadt’s legal team is headed by solicitor Anthony Julius, as portrayed by Andrew Scott surely the coolest lawyer ever to operate at this high level. His strategy is not to call Holocaust victims as witnesses whom Irving could humiliate by cross-examination in court and thus legitimise an argument that the fact that the Holocaust happened is debatable, but to forensically unpick the fine detail of Irving’s work in order to show his racial prejudice, lies and outright manipulation of the facts. Her barrister is old-school Richard Rampton, debonair lover of fine wine, exhibiting old-fashioned courtesy in chambers and razor-sharp incisiveness in court – an impressive, rounded performance by Tom Wilkinson.

Based on Deborah Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, David Hare’s excellent screenplay, which simplifies and hones complex issues for the sake of clarity, captures Lipstadt’s humour, her anger at the way her life has been shaken up out of the blue and her initial bemusement at British life and mores as she jogs through a soggy London where it rains all the time. She’s an American at sea in the British legal system, kept uncharacteristically silent by her solicitor, who refuses to let her speak in court in order to keep the focus on Irving.

As part of building up the defence case, Lipstadt and her legal team visit Auschwitz. It’s shrouded in mist and rain drips from barbed wire, as if in misery. It’s an atmospheric, respectful depiction, with bleached-out colours, and it has a powerful emotional effect on the whole group, including the Polish professor of holocaust studies (an unlikely and almost unrecognisable casting of Mark Gatiss) who is their guide around the ruins.

Even though the outcome of course is known, the legal arguments and trial scenes are gripping. Julius’s strategy was vindicated, Irving’s reputation was discredited and Lipstadt was finally allowed to speak after the verdict was given. It’s a solidly constructed film that suits its conventional directorial style.

Now it is more than 70 years since the end of the Second World War and few Holocaust survivors are still alive to give their testimony. Denial could not be more timely in re-asserting the truth, as we enter an era of increased anti-Semitism sanctioned by pervading populism.

Denial is released on 27 January 2017, Holocaust Memorial Day, in the UK.

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