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Equally magnificent performances from Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall and Andrew Scott make Denial a dramatic force to be reckoned with.

Denial tells the story of Deborah Lipstadt’s legal battle with author David Irving, a Holocaust denier who sues for libel against Lipstadt’s claims of anti-semitism which results in a court case that many viewed as the Holocaust itself being put on trial. The result is a minefield of provocative moments handled with the utmost amount of taste by the ensemble, the writer and the director.

Even though director Mick Jackson has tackled Hollywood features as big as The Bodyguard and Volcano he’s spent most of the past twenty years directing for the small screen and, while it doesn’t have that detrimental of an effect on the film, it is noticeable. This isn’t to say that the film does not feel cinematic, rather that it has an overabundance of that feeling at times. This stems from the film’s only real major flaw, its score. Perhaps it’s because someone felt the need to overcompensate for the classically BBC TV drama-ish structure of the film but Howard Shore’s score is mostly too whimsical for the subject and a little overbearing at times. It often seems compelled to tell the audience what they should be feeling, which can be annoying in the middle of a complex drama. Jackson, however, appears to have been more than aware that the driving force behind everything in this film is its actors.

Rachel Weisz’s lead is tricky in more ways than one; she has to not only nail the Queens accent but do justice to a real, living, figure caught in a tortuous ordeal that conflicts with nearly every fibre of her being. Lipstadt is an outspoken, passionate, character thrust into a world that demands that she be neither. But David Hare’s screenplay is blissfully willing to embrace the difficulty and contradiction of reality. Her struggle to be heard is not unjust, nor is her legal team’s plea for restraint cruel. This also provides the film an opportunity to build a rich supporting character, one which is fully exploited by Andrew Scott.

Up until this point in his career Scott has only really been known for very theatrical, a tad over the top, performances but his one in Denial is built out of a series of far more subtle character traits than you may have thought possible from him. To see him exude a soft spoken warmth and a commanding presence, leading a case which is clearly deeply involving and personal to his character, is wonderful and reminiscent of the talent of a young Ben Kingsley. He’s more than able to hold his own against the likes of his Tom Wilkinson, who takes to his flawlessly measured performance like a fish to water.

This is, of course, to say nothing of Timothy Spall who perhaps has the hardest task of all: to play a genuine villain who does not view himself, or conduct himself, as a villain. His David Irving is not just smugly self-satisfied and belligerent but controlled and self-conscious also. There is clearly a deeply vile person lurking behind a thin veneer but Spall rarely ever lets that veneer crack and if it does it’s only for a moment. Which brings us to what makes Denial so relevant to this current moment in time. Irving’s duplicity is one thing but what makes him such a fascinating case study for our times is his determination, his self-righteousness, in lying to the degree that he could make others believe that something as self-evident as the Holocaust never even happened. Tactics of misinformation, shouting and wearing down your opponent through sheer antagonism, these are all things that the public has been made uncomfortably aware of over the past few months alone. Perhaps more than this though Denial is about a simple truth which is that real, fervent, Nazis not only exist but thrive in our society today. They do not lie dormant and, indeed, still struggle to dehumanise people and write their own history. It is a film so representative of contemporary concerns that it demands to be seen.

This is not to call Denial a perfect film, by any means. While structurally sound its ending is needlessly misshapen which is unfortunate considering that up until this point it had taken the long chronology of events in its stride. The aforementioned issues with the score are frequently an irritating juxtaposition to an unconventional kind of legal drama. Jackson supplants numerous whammy moments with calmer scenes of intimate conversation which allow the religious themes in Hare’s screenplay to really shine. As courtroom dramas go it may not be the most electrifying or creative but it is both genuinely engaging and sincere. A quiet triumph in a season of very big awards season films. 

Denial will be released in UK cinemas on January 27th.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, film-blogger and lifelong cinephile who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University Of London.

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Posted on Jan 25, 2017

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