Some films just fly under the radar, and despite having great casts and interesting stories, they just aren’t given the notice they deserve. One such film is Denial, a true story that happens to be one of the most fascinating I’ve seen in a while, and it bothers me that it hasn’t received the attention that I expected a film of its caliber to receive. It may not be a perfect film, or even a masterpiece, but it is a solid piece of narrative filmmaking that is as assured its own story as the subject of the story was in her own unique court case, that forms the core of this film.
The film is about Dr. Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a Holocaust scholar and historian that takes particular chagrin towards those that deny that the Holocaust ever happened. At the forefront of that movement is David Irving (Timothy Spall), a scholar that had allegations of being anti-Semitic and racist, and was one of the most profoundly passionate advocates that the Holocaust never happened – and of course, as absurd as this premise sounds, he was so sure that the Holocaust didn’t happen that he sued Lipstadt for libel for claiming that what he said was a lie. Using a team composed of celebrity lawyer Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), Lipstadt finds herself thrust into a tedious and very complicated court battle where the very existence of one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity was indirectly on trial, and the question posed is this – can someone’s beliefs against something factual and historical be grounds for it to become acceptable to say it didn’t happen?
First things first – this is not a traditionally exciting film – if one is a fan of somewhat tedious and methodical courtroom dramas, then Denial is certainly the film for you. It is a film that relies on the fact that it is about a libel case in court – despite the subject matter, it is a film about a court case, and not even an exciting and traditionally interesting one and one that usually forms the basis of such a film (such as homicide) – yet it still manages to be a nail-biting, incredibly complex legal thriller that makes one question whether or not the world we live in is composed of rational people – how can we live in a world where it becomes acceptable for someone to truly not believe millions of people were killed to “cleanse” the world – where historical facts can sometimes be manipulated and outright disagreed upon, where it becomes acceptable to use our freedom of speech and freedom of expression to have opinions that outright contradict what is accepted as truth. This very Orwellian view could not have come at a better time, as we are starting to see this belief in historical and factual manipulation in the age of Donald Trump, where it may become normal to just change history to suit one’s own agenda – and we’ve already started to see this in the modern political rhetoric, because what else is David Irving’s view that the Holocaust never happened other than an alternative fact, if we are to believe Trump’s aide Kellyanne Conway? It is more than slightly troubling – it is outright terrifying. Yet, I digress.
The good aspect of most legal thrillers and courtroom dramas is that a great cast is assembled – and Denial is composed of a quartet of wonderful performances. Rachel Weisz proves herself to be one of the most underrated actresses working today, as her performance as Lipstadt is both parts emotionally resonant and moving as a character, and assertive and powerful as a real-life figure. She is simply a logical human being who went up against someone so ludicrous in his beliefs that what happened was the correct view. Weisz is complex and digs deep into the role, making Lipstadt a powerful and empathetic figure that we have no choice but to agree with, not because the film makes a certain case – because logic just prevails. Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott get wonderful moments as the somewhat hardened but still very sympathetic lawyers that represent Lipstadt, and in a way, represent rationality and history as a whole. Both actors are great in the roles, and while they may not be as showy as the performance I am about to talk about, they are still really good.
Now let’s talk about Timothy Spall. If we want to talk about underrated actors, we can’t ignore Timothy Spall. There are very few actors that are as brilliant as Spall. He is the very definition of a great character actor, and much like the likes of Steve Buscemi and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Spall manages to be an actor who is capable of playing a supporting role, usually a despicable villain, yet also manages to give utterly tremendous lead performances (one just needs to look to the films of the extraordinary and visionary Mike Leigh to see how incredible Spall is as an actor) – and in Denial, we see Spall give a truly incredible performance that may stand as one of the most evil and utterly hateful performances I’ve ever seen – as the racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and undeniably cruel and malicious Irving, Spall gives a truly evil performance and manages to tap into that goldmine of villainy that the likes of Christoph Waltz (in Inglourious Basterds) and J.K. Simmons (in Whiplash), amongst others – he manages to find the balance between being utterly and truly disgusting, and countering that with humour and strange charm – it just makes us hate the character even more. He is a person that we can’t help but despise, and unfortunately, to Spall’s credit, he is just so damn good, he makes us believe he himself is as terrible as the characters he plays – so to know that he isn’t is a great relief. Spall is just magnificent in Denial and continues to prove himself to be a genuinely great actor.
Denial is a great film – it may be slow in the middle, but it starts with a dynamite first act and ends with a nail-biting, thrilling conclusion. Ultimately, it may have some flaws, such as resorting to trope and cliché, and not taking the chance to be cinematically innovative. However, it is a solid, fascinating drama and an exceptionally interesting one at that, and while it may not be the most riveting of films, it certainly does have an important message, and the film does the story justice in a big way, but simply allowing the discussion to take place, both about the past and the future that we are entering so blindly into, uncertain.