At the beginning of the court room drama Denial, Rachel Weisz’ embodiment of Deborah Lipstadt states to a class the four assertions that Holocaust deniers posit. The killings were not systematic. The number of deaths were exaggerated. Auschwitz was not built with extermination in mind. Therefore, the Holocaust is a myth.
Enter David Irving (Timothy Spall), an outspoken Holocaust denier. When Irving lays out a defamation suit against Lipstadt, she must bring a litany of lawyers to prove that Irving’s anti-semitism discredits him as a historian.
Just as with Lipstadt and Irving, the film is a battle of acting talents in Weisz and Spall. It requires only hearing Lipstadt speak to find the resemblance in Weisz. She plays the role with a suppressed vivacity and zeal. Spall, on the other hand, taps into his self-righteous character by trying to wrench the screen attention toward him.
In the middle of this we have an initially gruff Tom Wilkinson and a curt, self-assured Andrew Scott as lawyers breaking a tragedy down into a scientific truth. The four of them provide enough energy to the film to prevent any moment from being empty.
Lipstadt’s story is a genuinely fascinating one. The suppression of her voice throughout the trial process is the major narrative thrust of the film. Along the way there are diversions in place—history lessons and comparative legal studies examples—but when the focus re-centers on Lipstadt and her struggle to quite literally be heard we get a frustration narrative that is purely enticing.
The visual compositions of the film are, like the subject matter, bleak. The film is lit, in large portions, in high contrast, with faces marked by shadows. Yet many shots are framed in interesting ways. If only it was pleasant to see such shots without having to strain to see the faces that are in focus.
Armed with a handful of grade-A performances, Denial transcends its drab appearance to present a tense courtroom drama. It may look drab at times, and the narrative may slack likewise at times, but the acting performances and fascinating real-world source material keeps the film from becoming rote.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)