by Flo Dwek
Courtroom dramas have always starred front and center in Hollywood. Think back to such weighty classics as TWELVE ANGRY MEN, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. They made our heads spin with suspense, excitement and profound truths. These riveting dramas have stood the test of time and played well to generations of moviegoers. It’s not a stretch to now add DENIAL, a powerful and brilliant new Bleecker Street film by British director Mick Jackson (TEMPLE GRANDIN, THE BODYGUARDS) to that hallowed list.
With an ingenious screenplay by David Hare, based on the acclaimed book Denial: Holocaust History on Trial by Deborah Lipstadt, the film recounts a famous court case (Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt) that unfolds over several tense weeks in London in the Spring of 2000, pitting defendant Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian and Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Atlanta’s Emory University, against plaintiff David Irving (Timothy Spall), a self proclaimed British historian and vehement Holocaust denier.
In 1996, an irate Irving sues Lipstadt for libel after she discredits him in her book, Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Lipstadt resolutely decides to proceed with the controversial case. With the burden of proof on the defendant in British libel cases, Lipstadt and her legal team must seemingly set out to prove – outrageous as it may sound – that the Holocaust actually happened.
But the congruent realities in this gripping film overturn and muddy that initial premise, propelling the players, the press and the public into a far more complex realm, where lies, delusions, falsehoods, fabrications and conspiracies collide headlong with historical and scientific fact, evidence and corroboration.
Jackson and Hare go to great lengths to do justice to Lipstadt’s incredibly moving tale, portraying characters and events with equal measures of gravitas, sensitivity and well placed humor. They drill as deeply to extract and uncover the disturbing motives and intent behind Holocaust deniers and their rampant anti-Semitism as they do to depict the painstaking research and strategic maneuverings of Lipstadt’s crackerjack legal team.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shines as he turns his lens on the dark past and the vibrant present. His haunting images poignantly capture the bleak ravages of Auschwitz in winter and the grim relics of the Nazi killing systems. The shoes of the dead. Bits of barbed wire. Broken stones. Broken bones, gray ash and melting snow. These symbols of death camp horrors are masterfully juxtaposed with vivid scenes of the legal team’s daily slog through countless papers, documents, blueprints and scraps of history to unearth the truths that may clinch the verdict in Lipstadt’s favor. The remarkable cast seems to float effortlessly through these twin landscapes, inhabiting their physical surroundings and emotional mindsets so completely and without artifice, as to appear consistently natural, convincing and on point.
Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt in a bravura performance of relentless feistiness, worry and empathy. Her no nonsense, New Yorker directness is tinged with just the right Queens patois to embody the spirit and persona of the aggrieved historian.
Weisz’s best scenes show her, proudly independent and hellbent on doing the right thing, clashing with her legal team’s chief solicitor (a very calm and proper Andrew Scott) on strategy and confronting the team’s multi-faceted barrister, Richard Rampton, QC (Tom Wilkinson).
British actor Timothy Spall (replete with squint, crooked teeth and receding chin), is masterful as Lipstadt’s nemesis, David Irving, as he weaves his maddening, shocking and disturbing distortions about Hitler, the death camps and the Holocaust around the taut web of the courtroom.
There are reams of satisfying oratory and point-counterpoint rebuttals from the brilliant Tom Wilkinson as the learned and crafty barrister who pleads Lipstadt’s case and is far more than meets the eye – and then some.
And the presiding judge, Sir Charles Gray (Alex Jennings), who Lipstadt likens to a character out of Masterpiece Theatre, plays it by the book with a regal, James Foxxian demeanor that is the epitome of British decorum.
DENIAL delivers on so many fronts – It is at once insightful, disturbing, poignant and entertaining. By all means, go out and see this film. But please don’t go to Wikipedia beforehand to look up the Lipstadt libel case and the verdict. Revel in discovery, shake with fury, marvel at civilized debate and behold the power of truth. Denial is, above all, a journey of respect and remembrance.
DENIAL is set to open in select theaters nationwide on September 30.
Click here to read WIFV Reviewer Flo Dwek’s one-on-one interview with Deborah Lipstadt