Denial  (12A) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Mick Jackson, UK/US, 2016, Dur 110 mins

Cast:  Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott

It has always puzzled me as to how anyone could deny that the Holocaust took place, in view of the overwhelming amount of photographic and witness evidence proving that it did.

But that is the denial under scrutiny here –  historian David Irving and his claim that the slaughter of the Jews in the Holocaust was not an attempt at the genocide of Europe’s Jews by Hitler.  The specific subject matter of the film is a libel case brought by Irving in 2000 against Penguin books and American Professor Deborah Lipstadt, who had described Irving as a “Holocaust denier” in her 1994 book  “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”.  Irving brought the case in the British courts rather than the American,  because under British law the burden of proof is on the defendant.  So it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team to prove that the Holocaust really happened.

With a story like this there is obviously a courtroom battle element, in this case a crackling conflict between Deborah’s barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) and Irving (Timothy Spall), who was acting for himself.   David Hare’s literate but somewhat cerebral screenplay with the help of a starry British cast also attempts to go more deeply into the story and characters outside the courtroom with varying degrees of success.

As Deborah Rachel Weisz comes over as headstrong, determined but somewhat strident – her performance is good but as written she is more of a mouthpiece than a character.   It is her legal team, who have the best dramatic opportunities, particularly Wilkinson as Rampton, who keeps a bottle of good claret and some sandwiches in the cupboard of his chambers to sustain him through late night poring over evidence.  It is in the duologues with him that Weisz’s character most comes to life.  Andrew Scott is smart, smooth and somewhat self satisfied as Anthony Julius, the hot shot solicitor, who had previously represented Diana, Princess of Wales in her divorce case.   Timothy Spall as Irving presents a figure, who is not only effectively slimily reptilian but in terms of the film isolated.  Almost all of his interaction is with the characters on the opposing side.   While presiding over the proceedings is Alex Jennings as Judge Sir Charles Gray.

The case for proving that millions of Jews were gassed hinges on the remains of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, which were destroyed by the Germans before the Allied troops could get there.   Were they for killing people or just for killing lice, as Irving claims?  One of the film’s most emotionally moving sequences is when Deborah and her team go to look at those remains, covered in deep snow, which reminds us implicitly of the privations the Jewish prisoners must have suffered.   That aspect of the story is also represented by Harriet Walter in a small but haunting role as a Holocaust survivor, whom Julius refuses to allow to give evidence on the grounds that it would just present Irving with the opportunity to ridicule and mock.

This is a very absorbing and thought provoking story, briskly directed by Mick Jackson, which gives us the opportunity to enjoy some first class actors strutting there stuff, but the deliberately somewhat cerebral approach to its emotive subject matter tends to limit our emotional involvement.  Very well worth your attention however.

Review by Carol Allen