Denial receives a UK release to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan 27, which serves to emphasise the film’s monumental importance. Oddly but interestingly, everything else about it is spectacularly downplayed.
Starring Rachel Weisz as American academic Deborah Lipstadt, the film is a rare beast indeed that denies its leading lady a star turn. Yet that’s exactly what David Hare’s adaption leads up to, Weisz’s Lipstadt being told to “button her lip” in court. On the film’s poster, the image of Weisz has the film’ title red-stamped across her mouth – again a brave choice, a poster covering up its star.
This is, of course, a dramatisation of the events leading up to and into the big showdown with British historian David Irving, who sues Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier. Hare uses the real-life court transcripts to recreate the final act practically verbatim, and the film leaves us in no doubt as to what is at stake.
Nor does Tim Spall’s skin-crawling performance as Irving give us any room to deny the man’s vile arrogance, or his dangerous, hawkish intellect. There’s a wonderful moment right near the end when Tom Wilkinson, playing Richard Rampton QC, refuses to shake Irving’s hand – Wilkinson does it with such a look of nose-curling disdain, as if the proffered hand were riddled with leprosy and smelling like a dog’s arse. And I mean this as a huge compliment to Spall’s performance.
Director Mick Jackson delivers the movie with a clipped, perfunctory realism, as if he were trying to stick to the facts like a good lawyer rather than an inspired film maker. To a certain extent it’s a successful and necessary tactic, allowing Wilkinson’s Rampton to steal the show with his Inns of Court British eccentricities, such as lunches of curled sandwiches and claret in plastic cups.
Andrew Scott’s Anthony Julius gets little room to show his flair yet lets his character’s enthusiasm for a juicy legal fight shine through at every moment while Weisz’s role – one which initially promises much – eventually mainly consists of jogging across Westminster Bridge and sitting tight on a hard court bench, biting her lip and trying to avoid the camera, or Irving’s eye-line at least.
Rampton’s decision to deny Lipstadt her moment in court proves to be his stroke of genius. So too, the idea to deny any platform to Holocaust survivors, for fear that Irving, in his ardour to exonerate Hitler, would make mincemeat of their traumatic recollections of conditions, dates and the exact layout of Auschwitz.
A more Hollywood movie would have torn up the facts and given the Holocaust its big moment in the dock, or have an Erin Brokovich bit of grandstanding for the punchy Lipstadt. But Denial is well named – it is the very act of self-denial which allows Irving’s big denial to be defeated. We want to boo him, throw fruit – but Rampton is correct here: Irving’s defeat has tarnished him far worse in real life and established Holocaust denial as both morally reprehensible and historically inaccurate.
So watching Denial requires patience. There’s nothing flashy about it yet it seethes with legal anger and intellect. Weisz is, as ever, impressive in a role that requires her to rein in her show-stopping tendencies. I’m sure she was thinking of BAFTAs and Oscars when the project began, but the film’s biggest accolade is in reminding us of the insidious evil of people like Irving and their malevolent claims in a post-truth world. The film, like the trial, however, also cements Holocaust Denial as a sadly relevant “thing”, one that now seems to be on the increase rather than consigned to a circle of hell.
This is a crucial, vital film, told in a very quiet and measured fashion. But the result is the right one in the end, on and off screen.