Accidentally topical courtroom drama Denial ’is in denial about the film it’s meant to be’ says MacDara Conroy
It’s tempting to view Denial as a ‘Crucible’ moment, in the Arthur Miller sense. The timing of its release, on Holocaust Remembrance Day no less, amid the detritus of the new Nazi-endorsed US president’s destruction of pretty much everything from the very fabric of his nation to the concept of facts themselves, is ruefully spot-on considering its subject matter.
Problem is, this dramatisation of the real-life libel action taken by notorious Holocaust denier David Irving against US history academic Deborah Lipstadt presupposes a state of the world that’s become uncomfortably fluid in recent days. I mean, when ‘Nazis are wrong’ is no longer an inalienable truth, then what’s the point of a story like this?
In fairness, the film was made before this unfortunate change in the cultural tide. But it has its own share of struggles under the weight of so many Hollywood tropes. We know Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) is driven because she jogs every morning before breakfast; we know she’s kind of bolshy from her broad Queens accent. We know Irving (Timothy Spall) is the baddie from his grey, almost ghoulish complexion, and the way he sneers and scowls through a face in permanent droop, well before we even hear him spout his despicable propaganda. We’re being set up for a very specific kind of courtroom drama, but that isn’t quite what we get.
Lipstadt arrives in a rain-sodden London (there’s another trope for you) to find that legal matters are handled a little differently in the UK, wigs aside. There will be no grand verbal tussle between the woman who calls it like she sees it, and the carny showman who plays with semantics and bad-faith argument. Indeed, her legal team’s whole strategy, as led by Anthony ‘the Diana divorce lawyer’ Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) — which basically involves not taking Irving’s bait, while giving him enough rope to hang himself — is antithetical to an American determined to fight her own battles.
We’re meant to empathise with Lipstadt’s emotional motivation, especially when the film takes an abrupt detour to Auschwitz that’s hauntingly shot, as you might expect, but flirts with tastelessness in a ‘Day the Clown Cried’ Jerry Lewis kind of way, and later when a Holocaust survivor pleads to testify for the defence. We’re supposed to root for Lipstadt in her growing frustration at the British system’s emotional disconnect, and in fairness Weisz plays it well, as a live wire of nervous energy. But the answer never changes from the start: That isn’t how things are done here. That isn’t how things are done here. That isn’t how things are done here.
Eventually there’s a point where the shoe drops for Lipstadt, and when she takes a back seat to let her barrister get on with it — and Wilkinson is a rumbling volcano of righteous anger when he’s finally got Spall’s lickspittle Irving on the ropes — the film is a much more satisfying experience. Director Mick Jackson knows what he’s doing here with David Hare’s script, based on the actual court transcripts. It’s just a shame that for so much of the time up to that point, Denial is in denial about the film it’s meant to be.
Denial opened in selected cinemas on Friday January 27th
Also published on Medium.