Weisz and Wilkinson bolster Methodical 'Denial'
Posted October 23, 2016
“DENIAL” — 3 stars — Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall; PG-13 (thematic material and brief strong language); in general release
For decades, viewers have seen numerous powerful and moving films about the Holocaust, bolstered by the raw emotion and bold testimony of both victims and survivors.
But director Mick Jackson’s “Denial” asks us to look at the Holocaust from a perspective that takes all that emotion away. Built around the true story of a courtroom showdown between a Jewish historian and an infamous Holocaust denier, “Denial” methodically deconstructs our understanding of the role of evidence, and warns how emotion, valuable as it may be, can be a crippling liability.
Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a Jewish historian whose early 1990s work discredited the small but vocal Holocaust denier movement led by British historian David Irving (Timothy Spall). After an embarrassing confrontation at an Emory College lecture hall in 1994, Irving eventually brought a libel suit against Lipstadt, to be tried in England.
Lipstadt has no trouble generating financial support, and hires the best lawyers she can find. Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) has a reputation as a legal “Junkyard Dog,” after representing Princess Diana in her divorce, and though he seems cold at first, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) proves equally skilled.
But while the surface conflict is between Lipstadt and Irving, most of “Denial” focuses on the behind-the-scenes conflict between Lipstadt and her legal team. The British legal system has some key differences from what she is accustomed to in America, namely, that in a libel case, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Essentially, that leaves Lipstadt and her team with the task of proving that Irving is every bit the rascal she asserts in her books.
Though she is willing to embrace this reality, Lipstadt’s true struggle lies in accepting Julius and Rampton’s strategy for winning the case. Lipstadt goes in expecting to act as a key witness, and to augment her testimony with the powerful firsthand testimonies of the numerous Holocaust survivors who see the trial as an opportunity to be heard.
But Julius fears what will happen if they allow Irving to cross-examine the victims, and decides the best approach would be to focus their case on the Holocaust denier himself. Essentially, don’t dignify his perspective by allowing it a voice.
When Irving first confronts Lipstadt at the lecture hall, she refuses any possibility of an open debate on the reality of the Holocaust. Right away, “Denial” starts to pose questions the audience may not want to answer: How do we react when beliefs we take for granted are questioned? Are there limits to free speech?
Jackson takes us through this process for Lipstadt slowly and methodically, and the result is insightful if not action-packed. “Denial” is the latest in a string of films that do an excellent job of getting the audience to think, but fall short of getting them to think something in particular. And sure enough, a late reference to climate change suggests the director wants us to apply the lessons of “Denial” to other contemporary issues.
But even if the material is technical, the film's seasoned cast makes it watchable. Weisz once again demonstrates her skill, portraying a woman forced to let go of everything she desires in order to keep her eye on the big picture. And Wilkinson is almost more moving as the shrewd Rampton.
It may not measure up to the “Twelve Angry Men” heights of the genre, but for those with any interest in the fundamentals of argument, the legal system or the frailty of belief, “Denial” is worth consideration.
“Denial” is rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language; running time: 110 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.