** (out of five)
Denial, about the lawsuit lodged by British Holocaust denier David Irving against the American historian, author and Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt, is a depressingly inadequate movie; three excellent performances and undeniably gripping – and important – subject matter just manage to support a dunderheaded script, ham-fisted direction and a lead performance from Rachel Weiss that borders on the unwatchable.
Irving sued Lipstadt in the British courts for libel after she published, through Penguin Books, her 1993 magnum opus, Denying The Holocaust, which took aim at deniers such as himself. She fought the lawsuit in London with the legal team of solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). Irving (Timothy Spall) represented himself. Needless to say, the case attracted reams of attention and was considered of massive import: as the movie never fails to remind us, essentially the historical occurrence of the Holocaust was on trial.
Subtle the script isn’t – and it’s by David Hare (who actually has written very few produced feature films). On the nose dialogue bangs and clangs loudly and frequently, exposition is vomited forth rather than layered in, information is repeated. Director Mick Jackson joins in the spoon-feeding; he has a particular affinity for cutaways designed to make sure we got it; when someone mentions, at Auschwitz, history being beneath their feet, we cut to their feet. Rampton’s fondness for alcohol is hammered home with endless (and I mean endless) close-ups of him opening bottles, pouring from bottles, handing out glasses of wine and so forth, but literally nothing is made of this, not dramatic tension (is it going to affect him?) nor irony (wow, the guy is brilliant and an alcoholic!) And a particular statue in London is burdened with too much symbolism for any prop to bear. Almost needless to add, Jackson overuses Howard Shore’s mediocre score; hearing it well up with every dramatic moment – in a film full of them – made me titchy and cross.
Luckily, Spall’s amazing performance manages to avoid such heavy-handedness, which is kind of a miracle. His smug, self-satisfied, creepy-lipped Irving is absolutely repellant, a lizard of a man, and can’t help but evoke the current American president. Spall is simply one of the best thespians in the world and Irving is one of his masterpieces. Playing the good guys, Wilkinson and Scott are both also excellent, which is particularly admirable in Wilkinson’s case as his character is the most interesting of the three and, in the world of this movie, therefore the worst written (see above, “endless shots of alcohol for no dramatic reason”).
But Weisz as Lipstadt… oof. For a start – but gratingly present throughout – there is her ear-torturing attempt at a Queens accent; it’s the aural equivalent of drinking cat piss. From there, two notes – pensive and screeching – attempt to convey a real person who, one can only hope, is far more complex and at least a teensy bit more likable. Weisz is in every sequence of the movie, and every time she speaks you wish she wouldn’t, which really works against some of the movie’s big ideas, including the defense team not calling survivors as witnesses.
Ultimately, this is a film about the law, not the Holocaust, with a despicable antagonist and, as portrayed here, an annoying protagonist. As such, despite the naturally intriguing nature of the material, it doesn’t feel justified, especially since many years have passed since the trial. Lipstadt herself has written, of Irving, “Let him fade from everyone’s radar screens.” So why is he on our big ones?