Mick Jackson’s film Denial is more than a dramatization of an actual libel trial. It is a primer on English libel law and the process of building a case, accompanied by a reminder of how ineffective such things can be against closed minds. Star Rachel Weisz describes Denial as a film about “the insanity of trying to put fact on trial”¹.
Jackson and David Hare, who wrote the script, keep their emphasis on the trial’s procedural aspects. Even if you already know the trial’s outcome, you will find yourself drawn into the process that led to it. It is also very likely that you will note similarities between this case and the current political climate.
The film opens in 1994, and Lipstadt (Ms. Weisz) teaches Jewish studies at Atlanta’s Emory University. David Irving (a creepy Timothy Spall), whom Lipstadt called a Holocaust denier in her recent book, interrupts the lecture. He offers a thousand dollars to anyone who can prove the Holocaust actually happened. Lipstadt throws him out of her class.
Two years pass, and Lipstadt receives a letter from England. Irving is suing her for libel, claiming she has ruined his career. Lipstadt decides to fight rather than settle out of court, little realizing how difficult this will be. Under English law, burden of proof rests with the defendant. Lipstadt and her team must prove the Holocaust actually happened.
That is not the only complication. Irving chooses to represent himself at the trial. As a result, Lipstadt’s team will not allow witnesses from concentration camps and forbid Lipstadt to testify. For the outspoken Lipstadt, staying quiet is torture. She also has difficulty trusting Rampling and the others, even though she has no alternative.
The growing relationship between Lipstadt and Rampling (platonic, by the way) is critical to keeping the audience invested in this film. Denial pulls this off, thanks largely to a multi-dimensional portrait by Tom Wilkinson. That is not to diminish the performance by Rachel Weisz- I simply feel the script gave her fewer opportunities.
I thought one development in the third act misplaced, rather an obvious attempt to ramp up suspense. Overall, though, I found the narrative flowed well. That came as a welcome surprise, considering how much the film downplayed dramatic conventions in favor of legal procedure.
A word of warning about Denial: Seeing this film may lead to thinking.
Theme: Trial Tactics
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