Denial

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Denial
"This is a grown-up film not ashamed to ask its audience to think rather than mindlessly emote."

In 1993, historian Deborah Lipstadt published a book called Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth And Memory. Three years later, incensed by how she had described him within it, English writer David Irving filed a libel suit against her. Travelling to England to find a defence lawyer and finding herself completely out of her depth in an unfamiliar system, Lipstadt found that not only was her work on trial, so was the reality of the Holocaust itself. This film is an adaptation of the book she later wrote about the trial that followed.

Casting an Englishwoman as a lost New Yorker in a film that is largely about cultural misunderstandings was a stroke of genius. Rachel Weiss is superb as always, though cast very much against type, with her version of Lipstadt a strident but frightened woman suddenly obliged to defend the whole of the Jewish people - yet, crucially, asked to refrain from speaking in the court herself. She and any Holocaust survivors speaking would face being humiliated by Irving, who is defending himself, her legal team asserts; the real reason, of course, is that they want to put the focus on Irving himself. Despite the fact that it was he who filed suit, it must be lying, not the telling of the truth, that is on trial here. Lipstadt's act of self denial, of emotional restraint in the face of extreme provocation, is at the core of the film, and Weiss' nuanced performance lets us see what this costs. She is not an actress who needs to be able to speak to show us what her character is going through.

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Sadly, these subtleties seem to have been overlooked entirely by the bulk of US critics, and one fears that US audiences may, en masse, react the same way. This is not Law And Order; there is little in the way of legal grandstanding and there is no cheesy emotional payoff, though no-one who is paying attention can help but be moved at the end. It's fair to say that the film has a very British sense of humour which won't necessarily translate - Lipstadt eventually losing it upon being offered yet another cup of tea is beautifully observed. Americans with a genuine interest in British culture will, needless to say, get a lot more out of this that the likes of Notting Hill. And no, there is no cutesy romantic angle - there isn't even much poring over famous buildings - because ultimately this is a grown-up film not ashamed to ask its audience to think rather than mindlessly emote.

Much of the intellectual side of it, naturally, emerges in the legal goings-on. Andrew Scott is the solicitor as ruthless as he is efficient in preparing the case. Tom Wilkinson, long owed a role of this magnitude, is the barrister called upon to deliver the English equivalent of courtroom drama, though what really makes his performance interesting - and wins over Lipstadt - is the way he shifts from blunt, unemotional observer on a visit to Auschwitz to a man whose emotions are clearly as engaged as his intellect. Meanwhile, in the challenging role of Irving, the ever-reliable Timothy Spall is at time unrecognisable, completely giving himself over to a character whose cunning we must believe in - and fear - even as we are repulsed by what he has to say. The joviality he brings to the role, and its gradual fading as he realises how little respect he is afforded by those he thinks of as his peers, are almost enough to evoke pity, and certainly preset us with a more complex portrait of a damaged human being that we might reasonably have expected.

Ultimately, though its audience appeal may be limited, this is a powerful and thoughtful piece of cinema. It properly depicts an important moment in legal history and it does so with a rare sensitivity.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2016
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A film about a real life libel suit that became critical to proving that the Holocaust really happened.
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