REVIEW: ‘Denial’ riveting, powerful, and poignant

Denial, in addition to being a superbly executed piece of film making, is as timely a film as any that’s come out this year, if for no other reason than these lines:

“Freedom of speech means you can say whatever you want. What you can’t do is lie and expect not to be accountable for it.”

Whatever side of whichever political, social, or moral crisis audiences in 2016 happen to be on, these words cannot help but resonate. The message behind them, in addition to phenomenal performances from a supremely talented cast, makes Denial a must-see.

What’s it about?

Rachel Weisz (The Lobster, The Constant Gardner) stars as author and Emory University Jewish Studies professor Deborah Lipstadt. In 1996, another historian, David Irving (Timothy Spall), sued Lipstadt and her publisher in London court for libel.

In his suit, Irving, claimed Lipstadt inflicted harm on his reputation by calling him a “Holocaust denier, falsifier, and bigot” in one of her books. Irving, a scholar known for his sympathetic view of Adolf Hitler, insisted the claims that he deliberately falsified anything in his work were, in fact, false.

Irving’s choice to file suit in English court makes things even more challenging for Lipstadt. English jurisprudence places the burden of proof in libel cases on the defendant. There is no presumption of innocence — a defendant must show that they did not, in fact, defame their accuser.

Knowing that the choice not to fight might in effect legitimize Holocaust denial, Lipstadt chooses to go to court. To build her defense, she turns to British solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, Spectre) and Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson).

Together, Julius, Rampton, and their legal team present Lipstadt with a strategy that both confounds and infuriates her. Neither she nor any Holocaust survivor will take the stand during the course of the trial.

Instead, they take the only course they feel will lead to victory. They endeavor to prove that what Lipstadt said about Irving and his work was right.

Denial one-sheet

Unique courtroom drama

What’s so striking about the courtroom drama aspect of Denial is just foreign it’s sure to feel with American audiences. Director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard) plays up that strangeness by using Lipstadt as the film’s viewpoint character.

Audiences watch events unfold through the eyes of a fiercely independent and outspoken American academic. Lipstadt wants to fight Irving and all he represents, wants to be on the front line of the fight. Further, she wants to provide an opportunity for survivors to face down a man who insists their suffering was a lie.

But for reasons that Jackson allows to slowly unfold, Lipstadt’s lawyers absolutely refuse to go that route. Thus, the firebrand American must stay silent as others fight her battle. Her frustration adds to the tension already established by the stakes of the trial.

Flawless ensemble

Here’s where the talent of the cast really shines through. It falls to Weisz to bring to life Lipstadt’s fierce intellect, her passion for her life’s work, and the bewilderment and trepidation she feels when faced with English law and the British way of doing things in court.

Meanwhile, Scott and Wilkinson must sympathetically portray men of equal conviction and belief in what they’re doing, even if it may appear cold and unfeeling. And Spall, a gifted performer often tasked with playing odious and often unctuous characters, must bring to life Irving in a way where he’s not a caricature, and audiences take the threat he represents seriously.

All together, not a single member of the ensemble fails to hold up their end. Their work together and individually, working from a marvelous script from David Hare (The Hours), makes Denial an unforgettable film experience.

Worth seeing?

For movie goers who enjoy historical dramas and courtroom dramas, Denial is a no-brainer.

However, Denial should also resonate far beyond those aesthetic preferences. The film tackles an issue the world as a whole is struggling with: how we define facts and distinguish them from opinions.

Yes, most of Denial‘s screen story plays out in London 16 years ago. However, its implications regarding the distortion of facts and historical record to validate political agendas could not be more relevant in 2016 America.

The world we live in is one where people on every side of every issue can cherry-pick whatever facts support their beliefs¬†from whichever source validates their world view. What people feel, what they think they know based on what they see, matters more than what others would put forth as “fact.”

It’s a place where the person next to you can perceive reality in a manner completely antithetical to the way you do. Moreover, to them, you’re the “ignorant” one.

But so often, those differences of perception between us are built upon distortions and outright lies. Denial tells the story of how one purveyor of such distortions was confronted and defeated by reason and examination.

We NEED more stories like this one.


Starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, and Andrew Scott. Directed by Mick Jackson.
Running Time: 110 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.