Denial (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): History on Trial

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As far as I can see from “Denial”, David Irving is a vile piece of work. He is a bullying propagandist who has no qualms about humiliating and discrediting others through lies and falsification, and any decent person cannot help but shake their heads with disbelief as watching him. He seems to care only about all the attentions he receives for his loathsome arguments against the Holocaust, and his egoistic behaviors and wily manipulations of the media will probably remind you of that orange-face scumbag currently residing in the White House.

While Irving in the film is wonderfully played by Timothy Spall with fascinating hatefulness, the center of the movie is actually Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an American Holocaust scholar who was sued along with Penguin Books by Irving for libel in 1996. Rather than settling with him outside the court, Lipstadt decided to fight against Irving at the court, and their legal battle certainly drew lots of attention at that time.

The opening part of the movie shows us the first direct encounter between Irving and Lipstadt in 1994. When she is in the middle of her speech in an auditorium of Emory University, Georgia, she is suddenly interrupted by Irving, and he keeps pushing his points against her in front of many audiences. She adamantly refuses to engage in an argument with him because she knows too well that it is futile to argue with a Holocaust denier like him, but he exploits her response as much as he can, and there is nothing she can do about that.

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Two years later, Lipstadt gets a call from Penguin Books. She is notified that Irving filed a libel suit against her and Penguin Books, and she soon comes to learn that the situation is not as simple as she thought at first. Because the trial will be held in Britain, the burden of proof lies with the defendant instead of the suitor, and that means Lipstadt and her lawyers must prove that Irving lied about the Holocaust as she described in her book published by Penguin Books.

Fortunately, her lawyers are pretty good ones. Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who is going to be her solicitor, explains his legal strategy to her, and he also advises her not to testify at the court because that is not only unnecessary but also risky. Putting her at the center of the court is exactly what Irving wants, and they will not let that happen at any chance. In fact, all she needs to do is attending the trial and watching her barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) do the job on her behalf.

Having its heroine in a rather passive mode like that, the screenplay by David Hare, which is based on Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”, often becomes deficient in narrative momentum, but this problem is compensated by several good moments in the film. The Auschwitz sequence feels obligatory at first, but it is presented with somber, haunting quality as Lipstadt and other characters look around the remains of the concentration camp, and we also hear a bit about that outrageous pseudo-scientific report by Fred A. Leuchter, which has been the basis of Holocaust denial since its publication. While the courtroom scenes have predictable dramatic points, they are effectively delivered with aplomb, and we come to feel more of the importance of the trial shown to us.

It also helps that the movie has talented performers who can instantly draw our attention right from their first appearance. Although she is mostly required to look exasperated or frustrated during many scenes in the film, Rachel Weisz fills her role with considerable amount of righteous spirit, and Adam Scott ably functions as a cool counterpart to her character during their scenes. While Timothy Spall is suitably slimy as demanded, Tom Wilkinson is terrific when his character calmly and mercilessly corners Spall’s character during one courtroom scene.

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The movie is directed by Mick Jackson, who has been known for several notable TV films and theatrical films including “Threads” (1984), “The Bodyguard” (1992), and “Temple Grandin” (2010). While it was made more than 30 years ago, “Threads” is one of the most terrifying films about nuclear war, and I still tremble whenever I recall many of its frighteningly realistic moments including the very last shot. “Temple Grandin”, for which he won an Emmy, is a very moving drama based on the life of Dr. Temple Grandin, and I have treasured that film for giving me several powerful moments of elevation.

Compared to “Threads” and “Temple Grandin”, “Denial” is less special due to Jackson’s workman-like storytelling approach, and there are some weak parts which could have been improved or discarded. Most of minor supporting characters in the film are bland and superficial, and the part involved with a Holocaust survivor feels rather redundant although it is sincere and respectful at least. There are also several blatant visual moments throughout the film, and one brief shot suddenly showing the bad weather outside a window is too obvious to say the least.

Nevertheless, I think the movie is still worthwhile to watch considering its subject which has become more relevant during recent years. We have seen the alarming social/political rise of people as deceitful and despicable as Irving, and the movie reminds me again of why we must not step back from their virulent lies. The movie is imperfect in parts, but it does make its points anyway, so I recommend it with some reservation.

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