In an era of "alternative facts," a legal battle about the Holocaust wastes its potential
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Denial is the timing of its release, with the film’s interesting if by-the-numbers drama finding an astonishing timeliness in the days we live in.
In the same week – has it really only been that long? – since the White House determined that it has licence to recast lies as “alternative facts,” Denial arrives to remind us that words have meaning, and the institutional framework that surrounds our lives can be exploited to terrible ends. In telling this story of a Holocaust denier who must be proved wrong in a defamation case, the underlying message is less about the battle of fact versus fiction, and more about how those who seek to undermine democracy will attack it through its systems.
It’s just a shame that a film so on-the-nose of the current political climate change sweeping through western democracies feels so by the numbers.
When David Irving (Timothy Spall, quietly appalling) launches legal proceedings against American Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz, ably subbing in for the originally cast Hillary Swank) for calling him anti-Semitic, the Atlanta-based academic is forced to prove the existence of the Holocaust in court. There follows an interesting legal problem that sees Lipstadt understandably becoming increasingly annoyed when decades of accepted facts begin to falter due to the lack of a single piece of tangible evidence.
Afraid of creating an even bigger platform to smear the history of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Third Reich, Lipstadt’s legal team, led by Tom Wilkinson’s brooding barrister, has the difficult job of pursuing an almost detached take down of Irving’s case. While that results in some gloriously acted judicial jibing as Wilkinson and Spall spar across the courtroom, it also saps the film of the emotional punch it should be levying.
If anything, despite a handful of zinging lines delivered in a broad Jewish-American accent, Weisz almost seems like a supporting character in her own story. Although a peer-reviewed professor used to the impersonal cut and thrust of peer review, David Hare’s script reduces Lipstadt to a testy tourist incapable of comprehending the matter-of-fact approach of her legal team has to take. Denied the opportunity to take the stand lest Irving get the chance to – on the record – argue with a Jew about whether the Holocaust even happened, Lipstadt becomes the emotional stand-in, designed to remind the audience that those who perished at the height of our inhumanity were people and not just nameless millions.
Denial is shot and feels very much like a made-for-TV drama, a simple re-enactment peppered by moments of earnest drama. It can’t be faulted for not having the prescience to be the drama it could have been in today’s post-fact world, but there’s no getting around its small ambitions make for a middle-of-the-road movie.
Verdict: ★★★☆☆ While there are very few objections to these legal proceedings, the weight and significance of its story gets lost in the bland storytelling.
Denial (12A/110mins) is released nationwide on January 27th.