For something a little less bombastic than the ‘major’ release this week, look no further than Denial, a legal drama following historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) after she is sued for libel by a renowned Holocaust denier, David Irving (Timothy Spall).
Unlike Loving, which I reviewed a few months ago and praised for not focusing on the courtroom drama, Denial dives right into the court proceeding, primarily concerning itself with the trial, with everything else revolving around it. In this instance, that’s the right call, with the trial being a fascinating insight into truth, proof and the curly intricacies of different legal systems.
While the film sells itself on the notion of Deborah having to ‘prove the Holocaust occurred’, it’s not quite that simple, and certainly not about just proving it ‘happened’ in some sense of the word. From the start, Deborah refuses to engage in conversation with Holocaust deniers, despite her students questioning whether she should try to convince and debate with them, or the argument for free speech. After she is accosted by Irving at one of her talks and refuses to engage, her publisher is sent notice that they are being sued regarding a ‘defaming insult’ she made regarding him in one of her books.
I’ll stop there to avoid spoiling too much, as this is certainly a film that relies on its cast and the story being told. The visuals and score on display are fine, but nothing unique – the BBC Films logo reminds that this could easily be something they made for TV. Similarly, the story is obviously a true one, so different audiences will go in with various knowledge of the events, but the story nevertheless shows it from an internal perspective, and reactions from the attorneys and accused provide a unique perspective.
The opinionated Deborah is well portrayed by Rachel Weisz as a ‘normal’ insight into the process, constantly questioning the methods of her lawyers, outraged at being forced to confront and acknowledge Irving’s beliefs. Timothy Spall plays Irving as the right mixture of clever, patronizing, friendly, and delusional. He is magnetic, and it’s honestly a shame that the film doesn’t spend a little more time investigating his character. The rare snaps we get allow us to alternately hate and pity him, but ultimately he is antagonist first and foremost.
The ultimate heart though, comes from the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson, here playing Richard Rampton, one of Deborah’s legal team, who must force himself to detach from the emotional impact of the history to ensure they have the best possible logical case and presentation in court. This is often the main exploration of the film as a whole – separating emotion from reason – and it does a fine job at posing a number of questions without repeating common territory from other legal dramas and Holocaust related films.
All told, this is a fine drama that certainly feels like a BBC film. It’s nothing groundbreaking or a must see, but it’s an interesting story with a few twists and turns, great actors and something a bit different to say about familiar subject matter.