Directed by Mick Jackson. Starring Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Gatiss, Jack Lowden. (2016, PG-13, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 14, 2016
Astonishingly, in these early years of the 21st century, we are finding ourselves existing at a time when fact, fiction, and the very nature of reality itself are under what feels like constant suspicion. It’s not just the paranoid, partisan political derangement that’s engulfed both our own country and the world at large, either, although certainly the current race for the White House is an alarming indicator that strange chaos is afoot. When Elon Musk and Bank of America postulate (as they did last week, no joke) that our shared reality may in actuality be a malicious, AI-generated computer simulation along the lines of 1999’s The Matrix, the zeitgeist has toppled over into some sort of existential abyss. I mention all of this because the excellent courtroom drama Denial touches on many of the same themes, albeit with a far more pat outcome than anything we currently have at hand.
Based on a nonfiction book by Deborah Lipstadt (here played with tight-lipped outrage by a well-cast Weisz), Denial recounts the famous court case in which the writer and Holocaust historian was sued for libel by one David Irving (Spall), a British far right-leaning “historian” and Holocaust denier. Because the libel suit was filed in England, the burden of proof falls to the accused (i.e., the flabbergasted Lipstadt) and not to the prosecution, as it would in the United States.
Lipstadt, her publisher, and her supporters quickly enlist the services of notorious shark solicitor Anthony Julius (an icy Scott, best known on these shores as Sherlock’s Moriarty), who realizes the best way to prove the particulars of Holocaust history at stake is not to call actual survivors to the stand, but to give Irving just enough rope to hang himself by his own ugly petard. Wilkinson, as Richard Rampton, the barrister representing Lipstadt in court, is another ace in the hole – as ever, he digs deep into the role and ultimately becomes the soul of the movie.
Courtroom dramas can be tricky, tetchy things, but director Jackson, working from a script by David Hare (The Hours) keeps the suspense and moral indignation peaking high throughout Denial’s slightly overlong running time. A minor subplot involving Lipstadt and a Holocaust survivor determined to get her own story out slows the film down briefly, yet I can understand why it’s there. The final verdict, of course, is a matter of historical record, but Denial brings with it so many parallels to contemporary issues of huge lies and great truths that its message is all the more resonant. Well done.