In England, libel cases are handled much differently than in America. While our presumption of innocence requires that the burden of proof be on the accuser, the Brits require the opposite. Those accused of defamation have to prove that their defamatory statement is either true, or not defamatory at all. Also, their judges wear silly wigs and weird ties that look like they were made as a children’s construction paper crafting activity.
When an American author Susan Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz, good, but miscast) ,who has spent her academic life seeking to discredit Holocaust deniers is called to a British court by a sniveling rat-man (Timothy Spall, perfectly cast), it’s up to her to do something that seems easy: prove that the Holocaust happened. Well, not really. I’m simplifying things a bit, but essentially that is what she is tasked with doing. In one of her books, she calls out a loudmouth independent historian David Irving, stating that he denies the Holocaust in the name of anti-semitism. Now, she has to prove in a British court that what Irving preaches is not just false, but specifically rooted in malice.
So yeah, in order to do so, she pretty much has to prove that the Holocaust occurred. Here’s the thing: the Nazis, jerks that they were, were very careful not to leave any photographic evidence of gas chambers and other horrors, and even went so far as to bomb the killing floors of their camps after the war ended, all in the interest of preserving their legacy. Heck, these guys almost torched Paris just to be sore losers. As a result, tangible, provable evidence of the Holocaust is surprisingly hard to come by, and if Lipstadt and her team of lawyers – I MEAN BARRISTERS – can’t do it, then there will be a legal precedent that speaks against the Holocaust’s historical existence. Bad news for humanity, really.
Where Denial succeeds is in the performances. Although miscast, Weisz proves herself to be capable of a chameleonic range, playing Lipstadt with the right amount of charm and attitude. We can see why she’s unwilling to just settle the case on her publisher’s dime, and we root for her to do it. Timothy Spall was clearly constructed in a moldy steampunk laboratory specifically for the purpose of playing slimeballs. Tom Wilkinson outclasses everybody as Richard Rampton, the barrister-or-lawyer-or whatever tasked with presenting Lipstadt’s case for the judge. When he verbally spars with Irving, Denial evokes levels of righteous indignation that the rest of the film struggles to find.
And that’s the problem. The story is compelling and important by its very nature (loudly spouting lies until they become ‘true’ seems to be the news item of the day, everyday – at least until November 5th), but the script only gives us small portions of legalese, glossing over items that, if employed properly, would serve to create dramatic bomb-drops befitting of the best courtroom dramas. But here we are merely told the weight of certain developments, usually through oddly expository passes by throngs of reporters, individually verbalizing their take on the day’s events back to the news desk.
But even with the missed opportunities for big drama, Denial mostly works, telling a real life tale that many people (myself included) lived through without ever knowing about it. As Mick Jackson’s first theatrical release in 14 years, it shows that the man behind L.A. Story, Steve Martin’s masterpiece, hasn’t lost his eye for cinema. In on particular sequence, we are taken on location to Auschwitz. No blue screen, no Magneto, just the ruins of a nightmare. Jackson creates a dour feeling that serves the history of the location well, and gives us one of the most powerful scenes of the year. It’s hard not to feel the sadness that forever inundates the air around the ruins, and it flows effortlessly into the theater.
The highlight of the film was when Timothy Spall spouted a small piece of hateful dialogue, and the little old lady next to me muttered to herself, “rotten mother****ing p***k.” I ended up looking like the jerk because I laughed out loud. Worth it.
Denial opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.